“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mind, Objects, Ethics

I am in fact a panpsychist. But not because I can't allow beings to be respected unless they have a mind. I am one for ontological reasons. 

There is this charge that OOO "doesn't have a politics" or ethics. In some sense this just ignores the way in which I've argued that OOO implicitly puts "anarchism" (too totalizing a word) as the basic political quality of all beings (such that other political forms are distortions of reality). And any number of other positions us lot have argued for a while.

But in another sense--this is my inner Derridean speaking--why must "having a politics" be something that is easy to see or something one must rush into? Why can't hesitation about politics also be a kind of politics? And wouldn't such a hesitation, in the face of the sudden recognition by lots of humans of the poverty of anthropocentrism, be a good idea?

And why--this my inner Graham--should an ontology have an easy to recognize, snap-on ethics or politics, so we don't have to be freaked out?

This idea (the "show us your papers" kind of threat one sometimes hears about OOO), expresses its inverse, unconscious side implicitly.

The inverse idea is that ethics presumes some kind of ontology--despite how taboo the idea of ontology at all has become.

So for instance, consider this argument for all things having minds:

"If it doesn't have a mind, how can we respect it?" (or recognize it has rights or whatever). 

Well, let's think about it the other way. Instead of proving that everything has a mind, what happens when some things don't?  

I think there is an implicit ontology in the assertion that beings without minds can't be said to have rights (or whatever). 

The ontology is that a thing is basically a lump of whatever. Since I can do what I like with it, it might as well be a kind of Play Doh. 

This ontology is, as I've argued, the Easy Think Substance implicit in agrilogistical space--and of course in Aristotle, and most forms of materialism. 

Such an ontology is absolutely the inverse of OOO. In OOO, everything is vivid and "lively" to the extent that its appearance is inseparably glued to its essence. (Too short a space to explain this.) 

Having to give things rights because we can prove they have a mind/emotion etc is the way vivisection arguments proceed. If it doesn't have a mind, you can experiment on "it" as you wish. 

Having a mind as a precondition for avoiding inevitable ("necessary") violence. Violence I am permitted (even encouraged) to act out if it's demonstrated that a being is without a mind.  

So if we're going to say that all beings have minds, we shouldn't say that this is what grants them our special favor (us benevolent, condescending humans, sole dispensers of ethics and justice and "rights"). 

We need to peel ontology away from ethics, to some extent, precisely because there are pretty awful default ontologies out there (implicit and taboo even to speak aloud--we are "beyond" ontology etc), ontologies that underwrite ethics and politics--ontologies that are contemporary, by which I mean the present moment of 10 000 years extent, in other words, the ecological catastrophe we are inside. 
If we are going to think beyond that, we had better start elsewhere. This would be why it's best to assume the OOO view, in my opinion. On this view, even if a thing doesn't have a mind (whatever that is), we have no reason to treat it as the blank screen for our (sadistic) fantasy. 

Then we can go about finding out what "mind" might be like under those conditions. 


cgerrish said...

Somehow I think the problematic words "soul" and "spirit" should be rehabilitated and put to work in this discourse.

amanda vox said...

thank you Tim, this was really helpful.

Anonymous said...

Maybe another way to put this (and building on cgerrish"s comment) is in terms of Descola's description of animism: "the object has a similar interiority and a different physicality". For Descola, “naturalism inverts the ontological premises of animism since,instead of claiming an identity of soul and a difference of bodies, it is predicated upon a discontinuity of interiorities and a material continuity.”

My sense is that his interiority is related to but not identical to having a mind. Perhaps interiority here has a sense of the potential at least of an intimate connection.

dekersaint.co.uk said...

I wrote this last July after lots of questions about OOO and ethics