What is it like to be an object?

Early in his Treatise Hume proposes a simple challenge to anyone who would deal his system a fatal blow: come up with an idea that cannot be traced to a corresponding impression. Hume then offers a possible example, namely the case of the missing shade of blue. If we had experienced all shades of blue except for a single shade, and if all these shades were spread out before us except for the missing shade, would we be able to come up with an idea of this shade despite the fact that we had never had the corresponding impression of it? Hume claims we no doubt could and then quickly dismisses the case as exceptional and of little threat to his system. David Pears, Jonathan Bennett, and others believe Hume was mistaken to dismiss the missing shade as an insignificant exceptional case and argue that it does indeed pose a serious challenge to his system. There has been much ink put to paper to address this issue. Then towards the end of the Treatise, in the Appendix, Hume makes another claim concerning simple ideas that has also caused much consternation. After claiming that ‘simple ideas may have a similarity or resemblance to each other,’ he argues that ‘Blue and green are different simple ideas, but are more resembling than blue and scarlet’; moreover, these comparisons can be made without relying upon or ‘having any common circumstance the same.’ (T 637). As simple ideas, blue, green, and scarlet are qualities that are not composites and yet they may and do vary by degree. As Hume puts it, all the degrees in any quality – degrees of blue, intensity of color, etc., ‘are all resembling’ – they all resemble the simple idea blue – ‘and yet the quality, in any individual, is not distinct from the degree.’ (ibid.). In other words, if we think of the missing shade of blue as one of the qualitative degrees of intensity of the simple idea blue, then the missing shade is not distinct from the qualitative simple idea we do possess, and hence the inseparability of degree from quality enables one to come up with the idea of the missing shade, and it enables one to compare and contrast simple ideas. This is why the Laplander, to refer to another of Hume’s examples from the first Enquiry, is unable to come up with the idea of wine – they had not had a single impression of wine and hence no degrees of quality either.

It’s an injustice I realize to summarize in a paragraph what many see as a serious issue in Hume’s thought and then to resolve it all at the same time. I’ve dealt with this at greater length elsewhere, but to quickly turn the subject to Maïmon and address the realism issue I brought up in an earlier post [link], what I want to address is the fact a simple idea, even for Hume, appears to be a multiplicity, a synthesis of intensities that are inseparable from and ultimately indistinguishable from the simple ideas. It is no surprise then that Deleuze was interested in Hume. In an anti-Kantian move, Deleuze finds in Hume someone who does not presuppose the abstract but believes that ‘the abstract must itself be explained.’ It is also no surprise that Deleuze turns to Maïmon, for here too we find an effort to rethink the Kantian question quid juris by simultaneously generating abstractions in a way that, as Deleuze reads Maïmon, ‘overcomes the duality of concept and intuition.’ (DR 174). Deleuze will cite Maïmon at length, and it ties in directly with what was said above concerning Hume. Here’s the citation:

When I say, for example: red is different from green, the concept of the difference in so far as this is a pure concept of the understanding is not considered to be the relation between the sensible qualities (otherwise the Kantian question quid juris would still apply). Rather: either, in accordance with Kant’s theory, it is considered to be the relation between their spaces as a priori forms, or, in accordance with my own theory, it is considered to be the relation between their differentials which are a priori Ideas. … A particular object is the result of the particular rule of its production or the mode of its differential, and the relations between different objects result from the relations between their differentials.

I discussed the importance of differentials as they relate to consciousness in an earlier post, but now I want to look at what it means to be an object. What is the ‘particular rule of its production’ and how does this relate to the differentials? We get a hint of what this might mean from Hume. The differentials are the degrees of quality that are not to be confused with the simple idea of the quality nor are they distinct from this quality. Similarly for Maïmon the differentials allow for the integration that results in an object (or a consciousness), and although the differentials are not distinct from the object (or consciousness) they are not to be confused with them either. And finally for Deleuze, in addressing the difference between differences of degree and differences of kind, he argues that ‘there would no more be qualitative differences or differences of kind than there would be quantitative differences or differences of degree, if intensity were not capable of constituting the former in qualities and the latter in extensity, even at the risk of appearing to extinguish itself in both.’ (DR 299). Intensity is therefore neither to be confused with qualitative differences of kind – blue or green – nor with differences of degree, shades of blue, since such a difference presupposes ‘the extensity in which it [intensity] is explicated.’ (300). In all three cases, therefore, objective differences, whether of kind or degree, presuppose a process of synthesis and/or integration. But this is precisely where skepticism regarding objects enters the picture. The reason for this is that while the move from differentials to a consciousness of objects (passing the thresholds of consciousness) entails a process of integration, we cannot move in the inverse direction and ever arrive at an object. This is why, for Maïmon, the noumena must remain unknowable to us.

But there is a further problem for those who would seek to move beyond Kant (namely, the speculative realists, among others). If objects depend upon a process of synthesis then the object itself becomes tied to, or correlated with, something that is radically transcendent to our capacity to know it – we only know the synthesized differences of kind and degree but not the differentials and intensities such differences explicate and actualize. We are in much the same situation Thomas Nagel discussed in his celebrated essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” In his challenge to reductionist theories of consciousness, Nagel argues that to be conscious entails a point of view such that “there is something that it is like to be that (conscious) organism.” Objectivity, by contrast, entails ‘reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation.’ In other words, there is a gap, as Nagel puts it, between the perspective of science that seeks a perspective upon the object as it is in-itself and independent of any particular perspective—the view from nowhere–and the singular subjective perspective that is a view from somewhere. No matter how comprehensive our objective knowledge of a bat, this knowledge fails to bridge the gap and answer the question, what is it like to be a bat? We cannot get to the view from somehwhere from the view from nowhere. But rather than reach a skeptical conclusion regarding the reality of the subjective domain, Nagel concludes that a realism regarding the ‘subjective domain…implies a belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts.’ Similarly for Hume-Maïmon-Deleuze identifiable, determinate objects, and especially the identifiable phenomenological relationship of a consciousness that is a consciousness of something, a view from somewhere, entails an integration and synthesis of differentials (or pre-individual singularities and intensities as Deleuze understands it); and then there is the move from the determinate and objective to the pre-individual, the view from nowhere. This is the move that is taken to be impossible. No matter how thorough our objective knowledge of differences of kind and degree, it cannot be reduced to the pre-individual differentials and intensities. It is like, as in the case of Hume, trying to arrive at the self from the bundle of impressions and ideas. It can’t be done. Are we thus left with a skepticism concerning the realm of intensities, or must we, like Nagel, embrace a ‘belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts’? If the answer is yes, then we would fall solidly into a correlationist perspective, or remain committed to the third dogma of empiricism as Davidson discusses it (see my earlier post on this subject). But the answer is no.

The problem with Nagel’s position, and with the implications of this position as it is read into the philosophies of Deleuze, etc., is that it assumes a ‘gap’ between the objective and actual and the subjective and virtual. Hume himself appears to equivocate on this subject, as has been widely discussed. On the one hand Hume sets forth skeptical arguments that undermine the legitimacy of any belief in a subsistent self, but at the same time Hume speaks of the self as a given, especially when Hume writes of the passions in Book II of the Treatise (in discussing pride, for instance, the self is a presupposed given). Hume himself was troubled by this (see Appendix, p. 636). The gap, however, is an example of what Whitehead calls misplaced concreteness and is to be understood instead as an abstraction. We are already always involved in objective relationships, and yet these relationships are always exceeded by a virtual that is real and yet not distinct from the objective relationships themselves. An example will help to make this point clear. In his book Ways of Hand, David Sudnow describes in minute detail the processes and challenges he encountered in learning improvisational jazz. After mastering the technical difficulties of moving effortlessly across the keyboard, a more fundamental problem confronted Sudnow as he sat down to play improvisational jazz – where to go? As Sudnow puts it, ‘when it came to sitting down at the piano, it was a rhythm of something, an intensity of something, an intonational structure of something, subtleties of something, and the something that first mattered was: these and those particular notes being played…but the prime question,’ Sudnow adds, in trying ‘to make up melodies with the right hand, was, Where?’ (Sudnow 1978, 15). In other words, in sitting down at the piano there were many more ways his hands could go than they actually would, and these other ways are indeed real and the problem precisely is to actualize melodies that are jazzy without being contrived. Sudnow asked his teacher, ‘tell me where to go,’ and though hesitant the teacher, when pushed, was able to give Sudnow a list of scalar devices (i.e., jazz sounding scales, runs, etc.) that Sudnow then incorporated into an expanding repertoire of skills, of predetermined paths in short.

These scalar devices, however, did not of themselves constitute improvisational jazz. As Sudnow watched his teacher play, for example, ‘he [the teacher] was flying over the keyboard, producing the jazz I wanted so much to be doing…he was not simply using the few scalar devices that I had been employing for each of the chord types. He was going many more places over the keyboard…(and yet he was) “orderly.”’ (ibid. 25). The problem for Sudnow, in short, was that he experienced the reality of the virtual—namely, the excessive multiplicity of ways to go—and he sought to actualize the virtual as a determinate and orderly sequence of notes rather than the indeterminate and indefinite number he was encountering. Occasionally, while playing improvisational jazz, Sudnow would stumble upon ‘good-sounding jazz that would come out in the midst of my improvisations,’ but when he tried to ‘latch on’ to the melody, take charge of it and direct it, ‘it would be undermined, as when one first gets the knack of a complex skill, like riding a bicycle or skiing, the attempt to sustain an easeful management undercuts it.’ (ibid. 83-4). Rather than encountering the multiplicity of melodic paths and actualizing it in a sustained path, Sudnow instead found himself lunging for a melodic path that was prefigured. What he was slowly finding himself doing as he become more adept at improvisational jazz was to affirm the multiplicity, to let it sing in a jazzy way. In improvisational jazz, Sudnow realized ‘there is no melody, there is melodying.’ (ibid. 146). There is no predetermined way to actualize an improvised melody, there is simply the process whereby the jazz phonemes become actualized, or there is melodying. As Sudnow began to play improvisational jazz with more success, he recognized that he no longer needed to lunge but could instead find the notes where his hands were rather than predetermining the path his hands should take. Sudnow is explicit on this point: ‘I began to see and then find use for further work in the observation that note choices could be made anywhere, that there was no need to lunge, that usable notes for any chord lay just at hand, that there was no need to find a path, image one up ahead to get ready in advance for a blurting out [i.e. a lunging].’ (ibid. 94). In other words, the reality of the virtual is indiscernible from the actual, as Deleuze argues, precisely because the virtual is only identifiable as actualized. Although Sudnow did indeed experience the reality of the virtual as an indeterminate, indefinable multiplicity, much as an infant, for James, can be said to have an indeterminate, indefinable ‘pure experience,’ this experience is the power of excess, the power of AND, inseparable from that which actualizes it. The reality of the virtual is thus not out of this world, it is not on the far side of the gap, but rather it is the life of this world that cannot be reduced to the identities of conceptual analysis, just as improvisational jazz cannot be reduced to a set of scalar devices.

Returning to Hume and the missing shade of blue, and similarly to Hume and his problems in accounting for the self, we can now see that we are involved in a double movement. We are already involved in objective relationships, an objective self in relationship other human and nonhuman objects; and we are forever moving beyond these relationships, to a virtual that cannot be reduced to these objective relationships. Our objective, simple idea of blue, for example, presupposes the movement of the virtual, of the intensities that exceed them, just as Sudnow’s improvisational jazz presupposed an excess of other ways to go, and it is this excess that enables the actualization of the missing shade. What is it like to be an object? It is both more than we can say and exactly what we say it is, what common sense, naïve realism says it is. The italicized and in the previous sentence does not constitute a paradox or a contradiction; to the contrary, it is the power of AND that Deleuze argues has always been the power and secret of empiricism, and the power that drives the philosophies of Hume, Maïmon, and Deleuze. And Latour, as a subsequent post tries to further clarify this theme.


6 responses to “What is it like to be an object?

  • What is it like to be an object? Hume and Maïmon « Perverse Egalitarianism

    […] Comments What is it like to b… on Thresholds of Consciousness:…What is it like to b… on Thresholds of Consciousness:…Mikhail Emelianov on Maimon Reading Group: Chapter […]

  • skholiast

    [cross-commented from P.V.]
    Great post, managing to combine reference to one of my favorite books (Sudnow’s), favorite philosophical subjects (colors), and favorite essays (Nagel’s “…Bat”) . And, if I’m reading this correctly, a very interesting and surprising use of the old “always already” ploy, putting it to work on behalf of the possibility of “objective” accounts rather than for a pragmatist-flavored make-do subjectivism as it so often is. Not sure I completely agree with the claim that your “and” (in the conclusion) is not paradoxical, though. Why the aversion to the p-word? Is it just because, as Meillassoux wd argue, it smacks of fideism?

  • Jeffrey Bell

    I think we agree about the use of the word paradoxical. It’s a habit of mine, and a bad one at that I suppose, but I don’t mean the uttering of contradictory statements when I use the term – which is why I use paradoxa — using the Greek for contrary to or against common opinion (doxa) — which gets closer to what I mean — and why I also speak of a double movement. I also want to avoid fideism and agree with Meillassoux that if one is to embrace a philosophy of becoming and contingency, as I do, then one will have to abandon contradictory entities. That said, however, I find that Meillassoux continues to reason with a binary logic – embracing the law of non-contradiction as he does – and I don’t think that we are placed into an either/or of either resigning ourselves to uttering paradoxes and affirming contradictory entities or remaining loyal to the binary logic of the law of non-contradiction. I draw much inspiration from Latour and Davidson’s understanding of indeterminism in setting forth a realist philosophy that is at the same time open to that which is beyond human knowledge (understood as conceptual or propositional knowledge). Sudnow, for example, could not play the virtual reality and multiplicity of ways as virtual reality and multiplicity but only as an actual melodic line, and yet this virtual multiplicity is nonetheless real.

  • Spinoza Upside Down | Aberrant Monism

    […] meant by a move to the virtual or to multiplicity, I’ll return to an example I used in a previous post. If we take David Sudnow’s efforts to learn improvisational jazz, he is in essence attempting to […]

  • Parrots and Concepts | Aberrant Monism

    […] to come up with the idea of the missing shade of blue. But Hume, as I discuss in earlier posts (see here and here), also does not think we would have a problem with the missing shade. There is evidence […]

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