Where does one Start? Let us consider the following idea by Dewey, quoted fully below, as one of the guidelines to think about where to start metaphysics: 

“It is not strange then that philosophies which have been at odds on every other point have been one in the conviction that the ultimately real is fixed and unchanging, even though they have been as far apart as the poles in their ideas of its constitution. The idealist has found it in a realm of rational ideas: the materialist in the laws of matter. The mechanist pins his faith to eternal atoms and to unmoved and un- moving space. The teleologist finds that all change is subservient to fixed ends and final goals, which are the one steadfast thing in the universe, conferring upon changing things whatever meaning and value they possess. The typical realist attributes to unchanging es- senses a greater degree or reality than belongs to existences: the modern mathematical realist finds the stability his heart desires in the immunity of the realm of possibilities from vicissitude. Although classic rationalism looked askance at experience and empirical things because of their continual subjection to alteration. yet strangely enough traditional sensational empiricism relegated time to a secondary role. Sensations appeared and disappeared but in their own nature they were as fixed as were Newtonian atoms-of which indeed they were mental copies. Ideas were but weakened copies of sensory im- pressions and had no inherent forward power and application. The passage of time dimmed their vividness and caused their decay. Because of their subjection to the tooth of time. they were denied productive force.” (Dewey, 1938)

What one gets from this quote are several starting point for a metaphysics. Each of them a commitment in their own right, and with their consequences: (1) Idealist (2) Mechanistic (3) Teleolgical (4) Realist (5) Empiricist. Perhaps another way to group these starting points for metaphysics would be (1) Mind (Idealism) (2) Matter and energy (Materialism) (3) Time (Temporal Materialism) (4) Substances (Realist / Empiricist).  Each of these concerns are considered as the transcendental principles or irrefutables (hesitant to call them things); and each of these central irrefutables bring with them their own consequences -theoretical, philosophical, and political consequences- that the metaphysician has to work their way through. Each of these aspects are not directly given in perception and hence, at least on that account, are interesting contenders to begin any metaphysical exercise. 

Metaphysics of absence:  A more properly metaphysical manner of starting would be to start with that which is not given in perception. While the sciences have largely been concerned with objects in perception, or in expanding the basket of objects in perception, metaphysics begins  with those things that are not give in perception: atoms, apeiron, space, time, substances, essences, soul, God, nature, Being, etc. By all measure these various conceptions of the absent or even the background medium are what one means by transcendental categories or principles that are universals. In other words, these conceptions of the absent universal principles, are the proper and true locations of truth of everything that is ever present in perception. 

Now that we have thought of ontology as thinking about the most general or transcendental conditions of principles at work in every-thing ever, where does one start with putting together a metaphysics? Or identifying a metaphysics in some author? Each of the metaphysics is a commitment that drives and guides the work of the metaphysician. So where does one start?

Following brief remarks can be made about starting from either of the irrefutables: 

1) Matter and Energy: You are holding a pot in your hand. You break it. You keep crushing it till the pot is basically now fine powder. You ask yourself, how far can I keep breaking or diving this pot? Or this muddy powder? You think to yourself, may be my senses limit the access to this question –‘I cannot really see things finer than the grain of soil that I have just derived from crushing this pot’. You think to yourself, what if there is some ultimate level of grain which cannot be further divided? 

What if all things tend to disintegrate and ultimately become this indivisible element? 

If that is the case, if there is an indivisible element, it must also be indestructible.

If it is indestructible, then is it the one with which everything is made? 

If it is really indestructible, and if everything disintegrates into it, and if everything is made from it, then, it must be really present everywhere in the world -or everywhere ever. 

Let us call this indivisible thing as atom (anu in Vedic scriptures) and the entirety of all atoms as matter (which can be translated into Greek as nature, essence, things, being, etc.) 

But, if it is really indestructible, then how is it possible for so many kinds of things be present in the world? 

Is this indivisible thing one? Or of one kind? Or are there several kinds of elements? Such that the combination of these elements might give rise to different things in the world and in the sky. 

Does this have weight? Or other qualities? Or is it one with no qualities? 

If everything is really (and ultimately indestructible) then is there really something called as time? 

And if everything is really (and ultimately) matter (Heilig)) then are the very many things of the world real? Or are they simply swarms of atoms? These are also central questions of sciences since the pre-Socratic times. 

Aristotle’s reflections on these matters in Physics are particularly helpful.[1] Marx reading of the difference of idea of Nature in Democritus and Epicurious is equally telling of several consequences from here.[2] If matter is everywhere, how do we make sense of the gap between things? how do we think of space? do we think of space as the place where matter accrues? Or do we think of space as the space between atoms? Then are things ultimately differently spaced atoms? As Aristotle noted about the pre-socratics, is everything varying degree of rarefication and densification? Hence in this model: matters are central or transcendental condition of everything ever. This means, space is the changing intensity of the organization of atoms. Time is but the movement in space.

What about energy? Hence, like most contemporary sciences, it is not uncommon to think of matter and energy as conjoined / interchangeable and ultimate reality. What moves things? After Einstein’s famous equation, matter and energy as conjoined ultimate level of reality has become engrained as our most basic understanding of reality. Quantum physics, today, gives this aspect an even stronger proof. One of the questions that emerges here is, is this field of energy one? Or is it differentiated? How does it differentiate? If it can differentiate, then why should it be one to begin with? Like the questions that come with the speculation on matter, what was there before energy? Where did it originate? What created it? In other words, what was the big bang moment with respect to energy? What was the original cause? Towards what end is the energy dispensing (as we above in Dewey and Foucault)? Or does energy simply push matter? 

Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Hegel, Marx, Deleuze and Guattari, Manuel DeLanda, Jane Bennett, Karan Barard, etc. can be seen as inheritors of this lineage. Each have contributed in their own way to develop this ontology further. We can broadly classify these thinkers as materialists (this is not a reductive remark -but only a way to make sense of the lineage of questions and problems philosophers carry with them). 

One of the big consequences of thinking like this is that, you always start with the ‘bottom-up’ construction of the world. What is sometimes difficult to account for are utterly random events at random levels of reality, for example: What about an elephant sneezing into the morning fog, in the silent early morning fields of Kerala? 

2) Time / Event / Occasions: One of the ways in which the materialists have tried to resolve some of the questions and consequences mentioned above is to put “time” at the centre or driver of the universe. Time as the ultimate organizer of the universe. The transcendental creative force shaping things in the universe. With matter and energy as the most basic condition of the universe, one had to really make sense of the idea of time? Is there something called as time? Is it only a question of Human or even earthly experience? 

Here let’s take the help of Whitehead, Bergson, Dewey, and Harman to think of the idea of time in those metaphysics where time is the starting point for a metaphysics. However, the focus will be to understand what happens when you keep time as universal structuring principle of cosmos? 

Whitehead’s central principle was ‘occassions’[3]. Everything is an occasion. We can perhaps also say that an occasion is an event. In the same spirit, we can say that an event is ultimately also time. Like the parochial sayings “it’s party time” or “when is the wedding?” or “You were one of the cutest babies in the neighborhood” or, as my aunt once said about a young family member passing away “we don’t realise the importance and impact of someone until they are gone”, and so on. Here, everything is seen as a temporal being, regardless of their material configuration -the atmosphere of the party, the future happening of a wedding, the grown up person, or the deceased person. Because everything is an event, it is an unfolding in time. The challenge here that emerges is, what holds all the occasions together -such that things endure? Let us take help of Graham Harman to understand this point, who has spent several pages on importing once again the idea of Occasionalism in Continental philosophy. Harman notes that Occasionalism has its roots in the Islamic theology, especially the Asharites who proclaimed that in order for anything to really connect with any-other-thing God has to act as the mediator.[4] This is very clear from several Sufi texts as well where one of common understanding is that ‘not even a leaf moves without the will of the One’. Harman notes further that Occasionalism finds it way into European philosophy at least since Descartes. However, in this import, the mediator or the glue between things or occasions will be human consciousness -we humans cut and organize the cosmos in ways that it makes sense to “us”. All causation is a simulacrum. The big challenge of any metaphysics is to find this glue or mediator. This was also a big question for Whitehead. To solve this question, Whitehead introduces God as the mediator between all occasions, between all past events and future unfolding, like the early Occasionalist. So the flow of time is enabled by the mediation of God. As noted by several others, God can also be equated to the Being in Heidegger, to Nature of Pre-Socratics, Shoonya of Buddhism, etc. One without quality, the one that cannot be named, the one that is all and nothing, the one that is omnipresent (like atoms / matter?).

Bergson’s meditations on existence and existents, starting with one’s own existence, in the chapter ‘The Endurance of Life’ from Creative Evolution[5], begins with the following sentence: “The existence of which we are most assured and which we know best is unquestionably our own, for of every other object we have notion which may be considered external and superficial, whereas, of ourselves, our perception is internal and profound. What, then, do we find?… I find, first of all, that I pass from state to state. I am warm or cold, I am merry or sad, I work or I do nothing, I look at what is around me or I think of something else. Sensations, feeling, volition, ideas, -such are the changes into which my existence is divided and which colour it in turns. I change, then, without ceasing. But this is not saying enough. Change is far more radical than we are at first inclined to suppose.” 

Further: “Nevertheless, a slight effort of attention would reveal to me that there is no feeling, no idea, no volition which is not undergoing change every moment: if a mental state ceased to vary, its duration would cease to flow.” 

Lastly: “The truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing but change.” And “Thus our personality shoots, grows and ripens without ceasing. Each of its moments is something new added to what was before… it is not only something new, but something unforeseeable.” Pg. 174.

What we understand here is that Bergson splits the existence and existent -in this one’s own existence, which can be pushed to a genera experience shared by humans, perhaps. In doing so, Bergson illustrates that he is an existent and who’s existence is a manner of change from one state to another. Until this moment, this is in line with Aristotle’s idea of the substance and accidents. Bergson’s existence doesn’t cease by every state of shooting, growing, and ripening of his personality. This is also in many ways very close to Whitehead, who also asked what holds one state to the preceding and the following one such that things don’t cease to exists from one state to the other. But we saw that for Whitehead the glue of existence was God. What is the glue or the medium for Bergson? For Bergson, this glue is duration or time (or real time). This is also clear when Bergson says: “There is a succession of states, each of which announces that which follows and contain that which precedes it.”  This also implies that the flow or flux of time is a continual state of succession of states. A gradual transition from one state to another in a manner where it is difficult to differentiate one state to another. Here it is important to ask, what pushes the previous state to the next state? One of the answers we can conjecture from Bergson is that it is memory. Memory not only as a human or living category, but a category share by all material things. It is memory of the previous instance that curls up together like a ‘snow ball’ along a slope, gathering immense energy in its movement, that really glues one instance to the next. Time in this sense, a Bergsonian sense, is driven by memory. 

What are the consequences of ‘starting’ a metaphysics with time? First big question that looms a continual unfolding is the question of variation in the intensity of the process. Does the process ever ‘cool’ or ‘heat’? In a manner which McLuhan imagines the heating and cooling of the medium? Secondly, how does one distinguish from effective moments of change and inessential changes, or are all change of states equally effective? Thirdly, beyond the indivisible and divisible qualities of things, what are the other kinds of qualities that can be attributed to things? How does one account for space?

3) Substance / Objects: Another way of starting a metaphysical inquiry has been to keep substances or objects as the centre of metaphysics. One of the big reasons for this has been because, it is things and objects that are given immediately to our sense perception -not matter -which remains beyond any perception all the time and whose existence has  always been speculative. One can think of Plato’s forms or ideas. Aristotle’s substances (largely living and destructible things), Kant’s thing-in-itself, Leibnitz’s Monads, Hume’s object, Brentano and Husserl’s Intentional Objects, Heidegger’s beings and things, all the way down to James Gibson’s forms, Bruno Latour’s Actors, and Graham Harman’s Real and Sensual Objects. 

One of the basic insights (or doubts) here have been the split between substance and accidents. Or, the gap between how things appear and what they actually might be. For instance, a sugar is a sugar for humans: It is sweet for us, it is granular for us, it is white/brown for us, it is soluble, yet not all its properties or qualities are accessible to us. It might mean something to us, but the same sugar might mean something else to birds, ants, microbes, etc. The second insight is that things have an autonomous existence regardless of what they mean to us (the basic tenet of Realism). Where things start to bifurcate is the position that one takes visa-vis this second insight. Do we agree that there is a thing-in-itself beneath all the appearances? Or do we agree that a thing is nothing but a sum of all its appearances? Another bifurcation takes place  when we agree or not that a thing is what it does or it is more than that or less than that? We can think of examples of naming objects: a mixer is something that mixes, Smithson is a son of Smith, Butcher is a person who butches, a cobbler, etc. Or in a Guy Ritchie movie a character called “Greek” who is a specialist in smuggling antiques, or “Franky -Fucking Four Fingers” because Franky actually has four fingers. What we are pointing at in naming something is really a pointing to what a thing does, or the qualities that it bears. 

In fact, regardless of whether one is a materialist or substantivist, the it is difficult to not start a metaphysical inquiry from objects. There has perhaps never been a philosopher who will not speak of objects. It is the move after this starting point, the direction one takes after objects, that has been the point of the rift in philosophy (evident not only in Western philosophy but also in many Eastern philosophy -thinking here of Indian philosophy[6] ). This is what Graham Harman has famously termed as Underming, Overmining, and Duomining tendencies in philosophy.[7]

The question of qualities: Speaking of qualities is so habitual to humans, that it takes a metaphysician to really cast doubt on this habit. For instance, we often try to gossip about traits and qualities of other humans and things. How helpful someone is, how quick someone is at a task, how tall someone is, how muscular someone used to be, how lovely was the colour of that house, how someone’s CV is a good fit to the company, etc. This only shows, like Bergson have demonstrated that there is a split between the object and its qualities. Sciences know it as well. What is measured in analysis of things is not the thing-in-itself or the thing-itself but it various list of qualities: weight, size, colour, temperature, texture, shape, taste, smell, luminosity, speed, conduction, brittleness, maliability, ductility, etc. Like Dewey noted in ‘Time and Individuality’[8] sciences split these qualities of anything into two big categories: primary and secondary qualities. The primary qualities are something that are integral to the object and the secondary qualities are only relational or subjective. While this is an interesting starting point, we cannot certainly accept this, not at least metaphysicians. 

Bergson tries to problematize this further by noting two different kinds of qualities in things: divisible and indivisible qualities of things. How can we ever divide fragrance of a rose? Or, the affection of a lover? Yet, at the same time I can count the exact number of petals in any rose. I can also count that one lover. But how do we know which of these qualities are objective and subjective? In this way organizing the qualities of anything, all qualities are objective which are translated as subjective qualities in every interaction. Deleuze terms this divisible and indivisible qualities as extensive and intensive qualities. In our own time, Manuel DeLanda has pushed it even further and formulated that the extensive and intensive in Deleuze’s metaphysics are two kinds of substances.[9]

Another way in which qualities can be thought about comes from Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology or OOO. In OOO there are two kinds of qualities: Real and Sensual. Real qualities are integral to the object and sensual qualities are the translated or caricature version of the real qualities as perceived by another object.[10] This sounds very close to the scientific understanding of qualities. However, unlike the sciences, there is no split between primary and secondary qualities of the object. Instead, qualities are split along the lines of integral to object and their translations perceivable by other objects. This is also different from the Extensive and Intensive qualities of things, primarily because the translation of real qualities -a.k.a sensual qualities- will vary from the capacity and qualities of the interacting objects. What is extensive to an object, may be intensive to another. In other words, in OOO, all qualities are integral and swirl around Real Object. 

Regardless of ways of thinking about qualities, what is however agreed is that causation really takes place in this ether of qualities. The matchstick would not light without the qualities of the matchstick and matchbox, the lit matchstick would not burn the cotton if it was not flammable, the burning-cotton would not emit a particular smell if not for a certain quality of smell already present in the emergent object of burning-cotton. It would certainly take a much longer study and space to develop this line of thought further. So let’s put a momentary pause on ways of thinking about qualities of things and turn our attention to that which we say is integral to things. In other words, to the question of what is within a thing, what is essential, or what is natural to things. 

Several consequences emerge from here. How to consider change? How to account for time? How to think of politics? How to think of relations between things? how to think of Being? How to think of space? How is individuality pre-given to things, if things grow and change over time? Do things have an essence? If so, then are essences eternal? How do new things form? In many ways, developing and addressing these questions forms the body of the philosophical works of those philosophers or metaphysicians who start from substances or objects.

The question and challenge of nature: Speaking of natural. One of the questions that have shaped the late 20thcentury and most certainly the first two decades of this century has been the question nature / culture binary projected by the modernists. Beginning with Latour who makes an explicit critique of the modernist split between nature on the one side and culture on the other side. The dividing line between the two has been humans? An important question to ask further would be, is the question of nature settled in philosophy? 

Let us try to walk on a few stepping stones in philosophy to address this question. Marx wrote is dissertation titled “The Difference of idea of Nature in Democritus and Epicurus”[11] Surprisingly, Marx starts the study with the meditation on straight line -but we will not expand this in this essay. To give a thumbprint reading of this thesis. Although, Marx is ultimately speaking of the difference in the idea of nature of atoms, we will find four ways in which nature is thought by the pre-Socratics: 1) Nature as everything (cosmos); 2) Nature as Chance; 3) Nature as declination and repulsion within each atom (or human); 4) Inorganic Nature (or the Sensuous external world as the site of labour). 

An important impetus to get rid of the idea of nature or at least to put it in doubt is due to this notion of inorganic nature as site of labour. Because it puts nature only as resource meant for human sustenance and living. Isabelle Stengers has meditated on Whitehead’s remark “Nature is everything given in perception…” this is not very far from the pre-socratic thinkers.[12] Except for the fact that by putting it in this manner, Whitehead is able to problematize the fourth idea listed above from Marx. Whitehead is able to nudge this idea further by keeping the ledger wide open and endless. At least this is what we get in the reading by Issabelle Stengers. Latour and Stengers, take the next step, by asking how wide and long can this ledger really be? Here, Latour develops two ideas: 1) including non-human things into the philosophical and political sphere. 2) all things are actants. In other words, the most important criteria for anything to be a thing is that acts on other objects.[13]

Let us say that the fourth idea of nature we have enlisted above is what the big problem has been about nature, and I am totally on train ecology as the alternative, there is however the question of nature as something animate / energetic etc. within each atom (and uniquely) is something that is a difficult one to get around. This third type of nature is usually referred to as essence. Even among those philosophers who have tried to work their way around or discard essence of things, one finds several traces of this internal nature as the engine or driver of things. We see it as the negative in Hegel, Unconscious in Freud, thing-in-itself in Kant, that which is given in intuition in Bergson, black-box in Latour, style in Merleu-Ponty, and so on. 

What about energy in this lineage of object-oriented school? In the lineage of Object-Oriented philosophy, the question of energy is either got little attention, or it is not considered as a direct philosophical problem. At least not in the way it is regarded in the materialist tradition. I will try to put forward a few speculations on this topic below: mainly as placeholders for future reflections. 

  1. Energy does not cause, causation produces Energy: It is almost common sensical for our times to think that there must an ultimate and deepest layer of reality which is an electromagnetic field that not only drives things but also enables causation. And as discussed above, with the advances in quantum physics it is even becoming difficult to distinguish between matter and energy at the quantum scale -let alone the presumed notions of positionality and spatiality. Although such things are of deep interests to any philosopher, let alone a materialist one, the topic of energy has not been so central to the object-oriented philosophers as it has been a matter celebration for the materialists. What the object-orient philosophers instead inform is that causation produces energy -and if there is any field of radiation, it is thanks to causation and objects and not the other way around. For instance, when two chemical agents react when mixed together, the burning of things, the, energy and spark that ignites when two rocks strike each other, when a spring is compressed, fertilizer shoots plant growth, the profile of a large dog produces certain emotions and reactions, etc. the list can be endless. What we understand, nonetheless, is that energy is produced in causation, and seemingly in different forms.
  2. Objects radiate Qualities, qualities touch objects: While the materialist school works with the energy as the primary causal agent, the object-oriented philosophers seem to assign this role to qualities. What enables causation in the first place is things touching each other. As we have seen above, the only way objects touch each other are through qualities. In that sense, what we get instead in the object-oriented philosophies is a truly differentiated spheres of energies that do not necessarily have any deepest layer whatsoever. This might even be one of the ways to enter the discussion of energy in the substantivist lineage. 

[1] Aristotle, The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, One-Volume Digital Edition (Princeton University Press, 2014).

[2] Karl Marx, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, 1967.

[3] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (Simon and Schuster, 2010).

[4] Graham Harman, Skirmishes: With Friends, Enemies, and Neutrals (PUNCTUM BOOKS, 2020).

[5] Henri Bergson, Henri Bergson: Key Writings (A&C Black, 2002). Pg 187

[6] Satischandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass, 2016).

[7] Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (Penguin UK, 2018).

[8] John Dewey, “Time and Individuality,” in The Human Experience of Time: The Development of Its Philosophic Meaning, ed. Charles M. Sherover (Northwestern University Press, 2001), 419–36.

[9] Manuel DeLanda, “Space: Extensive and Intensive, Actual and Virtual,” 2005, 80–87, https://doi.org/10.3366/edinburgh/9780748618743.003.0005.

[10] Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Winchester, U.K. Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2011).

[11] Karl Marx, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, 1967.

[12] Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (Harvard University Press, 2014).

[13] Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Re.Press, 2009).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s