This short essay explores Barry Stroud’s main arguments in his work The Quest for Reality against the possibility of grasping a conception of absolute reality. I will hold his arguments against the promises of the relatively new theory of Object Oriented Ontology, which posits that there could be a conception of an absolute reality. I will conclude against the possibility of realising a conception of absolute reality and I will defend my point along the lines of Stroud, maintaining that the classic Kantian gap between the subjective perspective on the world and the objective world in itself isn’t as easy to bridge as Object Oriented Ontology argues it is.
Beyond human-object relations
What is the world like beyond human-object relations? If we think of absolute reality as something that is permanent and not bound to time and space, and something that goes beyond the relation of being and thinking, would it be possible for us to perceive it?
Such questions on the conception of reality have a long history of philosophers and scientists who have pondered these matters and extensively written about them, however without arriving to a conclusive, irrefutable answer that affirms the possibility of knowing absolute reality. According to Barry Stroud, the idea of an absolute conception of reality is that absolute reality gives us no indication of whose perception it is; Any general criteria of absoluteness eclipse what lies in the eye of the beholder, and therefore lack all indexical expressions. In his book, The Quest for Reality, Stroud also argues that there is no such thing as a positive account that proves the existence of colour as a property of objects in reality, and he denies the possibility of generating sufficient plausible philosophical arguments to establish such beliefs. An affirmation of our beliefs and experiences of colour would mean an affirmation, in philosophical terms, of the premise that we can give necessary, sufficient arguments for the existence of colours.1
Throughout his book, Stroud remains sceptical towards the possibility of arriving at a successful metaphysical proposition that provides a definitive answer on the likelihood of grasping an absolute reality. Stroud rejects the realist theory of colour, which insists that there is a necessary connection between the world we perceive and our beliefs and experiences about colours. Realist theory states that there is indeed a non-psychological reality, which affirms existence as the way that it is, and the experience of existence as intrinsic to existing. But the question on the existence of colour in reality which Stroud postulates in his book, is in this respect not just about the questions that arise around the existence of colour, but about a wider perspective on questions around perception and a conception of reality in general; The existence of a necessary connection of this kind would have far-reaching consequences for the comprehension of reality; could such a connection indicate a conception of absolute reality? The conclusion of Stroud’s metaphysical quest for an understanding of colour beyond our beliefs and experiences is bound to be dissapointing; failing to conclude whether colours are real properties of objects or not. 2
However tempting it is to believe in the possibilities of philosophy as the inquirer of a conception of an absolute reality, it is certainly not an easy task to refute the sceptic arguments on having knowledge on the world and other minds in general, let alone meet the requirements of an absolute reality as Stroud puts it and go beyond our human perspective.
OOO: a counter-Kantian-interpretation
Nevertheless, there are relatively new theories which call themselves speculative realism, such as Object Oriented Ontology (hereafter OOO), which claim that this connection between human perception and reality is indeed possible.3 OOO is an object oriented ontology, which poses a ontlogy which can serve as a counter-Kantian-interpretation of transcendental philosophy.4 In order to do so, OOO tries to filter out subjectivity, in order to let the objects themselves ‘speak’, allowing objects to be able to stand on their own. As such, OOO aims to erase the ‘tool-being’ of objects and bridge the notorious gap that Kantian dualism postulates between subjects and objects. The main concern for OOO is to point out the domain in which objects become subjective beings; OOO poses that objects are actants, and we are objects in a world of objects. 5
As Zizek quotes Levy Bryant in his paper:
‘It is necessary to staunchly defend the autonomy of objects or substances, refusing any reduction of objects to their relations, whether these relations be relations to humans or other objects.” 6
In order to bridge the gap between subjects and objects, OOO states there is no room for subjects; instead of having the seperation of subject and object relation, all the subject is can be reduced to relations with other objects according OOO. And in order to reveal the hidden core of objects, we have to rid an object of the ‘affordances’ it has. For example, a chair has the affordances to sitting, to be chopped up as firewood. But as these affordances may come across like objective, they are not because they are not reducible to the properties of objects; they are embodying the relation we have with objects (viz. the relation of objects between objects).
So could it be a seeming objectivity that is being pursued here? Important to point out is that it would be impossible for anyone to apprehend the totality of all relations of any given object; it’s too complex. In order to overcome this difficulty, OOO states that most of the affordances of an object stay hidden. This is a big diffrence between OOO and other theories on the essence of objects; while the most philosophies are in search of the hidden nature of objects, OOO seems perfeclty in peace with the remaining unkown and hidden nature of things. Even more so, the main point of OOO is that for every known affordance, there are even more affordances that we don’t know about. At this point OOO adds an explicit reminder of the open-endedness of the relational conception of objects, in which I can find a common ground with Stroud who also proposes an open end to the metaphysical quest for reality and the properties of objects, in the form of a negative confirmation that an irrefutable answer is not possible.
Without going too far into the methods, OOO seems to offer an alternative philosophy to access to the world of objects and in this light I can see what makes OOO attractive, because is aims to overcome the dualistic mind – body relationship with that of an object-object relationship, in which the mind has also the status of an object amongst many.7 If OOO can succeed to overcome the difference between being and the domain of the objects, then not only does it have the potential go beyond the subject-object conflict, but it would also grant access to a concept of absolute reality.
This inquiry of OOO leads to the possibility to overcome the transcendental problems of the Kantian subject-object gap, and to get to know the real structure of objects through the quest of metaphysics. I would argue that the promise OOO makes gives us false hope because we can never overcome the subject-object distinction. In order to do so, I first would like to return to Kant.
Re- structuring reality?
The danger of solipsism and Cartesian doubt has not been treated and worked out as extensively by anyone as by Kant; Kantian metaphysics can be read as two worlds of existence; the noumenal world of things-in-themselves and the phenomenological world of experiences. 8
The consequence of this statement is that we can never know what reality is independently from our perspective on reality; as it appears to us. What is more in Kant’s formation of the phenomenological world is that in the traditional epistemological theories, the mind was conceived as a mirror that reflects being as it is in-itself. This supposed that the mind had some kind of independent reflecting upon itself. Kant argued that the mind does not reflect reality at all, but rather that the phenomenal world was built around categorization and a priori structures of the mind. This ontological-epistemic framework created a gap between reality and how the world appears to us, and moreover created an active role for the mind in structuring the phenomenological world around us.
OOO suggests that if the mind takes an active role in structuring reality, then it would mean that we would be able to precisely determine our perspectives on the world and the nature of reality itself. OOO argues for this possibility, and goes even a step further; when we see ourselves as an object amongst objects, we will be able to describe what Kant said cannot be described: the things in themselves. If this bold and striking claim should be true, it has far-reaching consequences for our view on reality, as well as on metaphysics; we might get a conception, a grasp on what absolute reality is.
In example, OOO defines a theoretical commitment to thinking the real beyond human experiences in order to reveal the true existence of things. In order to ‘see’ what is beyond human experience and to reveal absolute reality, we need to engage with objects on their own terms and get past rationality, knowledge and human mastery.9 The theory celebrates the idea of Bruno Latour, that propositions are ‘actants’ and; ‘they are not positions, things, substances, or essences pertaining to a nature made of mute objects for the talkative mind, but occasions given to different entities to enter into contact.’ 10 OOO takes this perspective a step further, to almost mystical approach to reality and aims to understand objects beyond their appearance to us.11
But how would we achieve such a standpoint? How could we realise that we reached that standpoint, without already being familiar with it? In other words; would we be able to recognize the absolute reality of objects? Kant would reply – as Stroud also does – that this would be impossible because we cannot adopt a third-person perspective, that would allow us to compare the things as they appear to us with how the things are in themselves. Stroud argues that there is, in general, no plausible way of forging a necessary connection between psychological and non-psychological reality, and therefor no way of forging a necessary connection between experiences of and beliefs about the perceived properties of objects on the one hand, and the properties that objects really have on the other. For example, putting it the other way around; if we are able to believe that we cannot believe that our ordinary beliefs about the properties of objects are false, and this involves adopting an external perspective from which to compare (psychological) reality with our beliefs about it, then why are we unable to believe that our ordinary beliefs of colour are false? Even though this also involves adopting an external perspective from which to compare (non-psychological) reality with our beliefs about it?
Suppose that reality is not something that is perceived by the senses but by the observer in us, who observes the reality as it appears to us; We do not only ‘see’ the world, but we perceive the world around us; there is consciousness involved in recognizing and understanding in order to process what we see into what we perceive. 12 This consciousness could be referred to as ‘the observer within us’. The question then arises; could this observer perceive the absolute reality? Along the arguments of Stroud I would argue that it is not possible to take distance from one’s own beliefs about the properties of objects (i.e. colour) and reflect on them whilst simultaneously engaging with the beliefs you have of the world. It would be like saying; “I believe that objects have colours as a property and I don’t believe that objects have colours as a property”.
Even if we could get a detached perspective from our beliefs, experiences and intentionality, as OOO suggest, then we already have to have a conception of the nature of reality and what our beliefs and experiences are in order to distinguish beliefs, experiences from reality. The problem to begin with that we do not know what aspects of the world are independent of our perspective, and what aspects of the world are features of the thing in itself, and thus the actual reality independent from us. Consequently, our knowledge is restricted to appearances and the only sufficiently explanatory conclusion of the question whether we can determine a conception of absolute reality would be negative.
Bridging the Kantian-gap
I have argued so far that external philosophical questions about the nature and reality of objects are only to be answered negatively, and that the perceiver within us poses a barrier to occupying the detached perspective necessary in order to answer them positively. I would argue as well that Stroud, Kant and OOO share a common origin by way of offering new metaphysical access points to a concept of absolute reality, in which I have to say none of them have unassailable, irrefutably succeeded.
But in my opinion, the Kantian dualistic problem between subject and object remains in place for now: it cannot be possible to know or experience things in themselves because they cannot be reached through our thinking. You cannot ‘unthink’ your way any closer to the absolute realness of an object, let alone an overall absolute reality, because you are bound to subjective perception and consciousness about what we as human beings are seeing. Objects can’t be experienced as things in themselves, contrary to what OOO is suggesting. Neither is it possible to conceive of an ontology of objects in this respect; we are indeed objects in a world of objects but we are also consciousness perceivers of the world around us, and thus far, no necessary connection between reality and our psychology has been established, and I’m sceptic that this will ever be the case.
Although OOO has an extending concept and understanding of what an object is and its complex relations with other objects around it, the casual way OOO is postulating the possibility of getting to know the objects in itself, suggests – very contradictorily – that we can distance ourselves from the complex, overdetermined and intentional relations we have with the objects around us, and more importantly, deny the role of conscious perception and understanding the world as it appears to us.
At the same time, I understand the attraction of the speculative realism like OOO, because it does make an attempt to push back traditional dogmas in philosophy and answer one of the biggest questions in the history of philosophy; can philosophy provide a definitive answer if a conception of an absolute reality is possible? Speculative realism tries to go beyond the stalemate of the mind-object discrepancy as Kant postulated it; both speculative realist theories and sceptic theories try to either bridge the gap of the mind-object quest in their answer, or point out the impossibility of bridging the mind-object gap. The result of imposing this question onto philosophy not only fosters a deeper understanding of ourselves as being subjects, but also an experience of what absolute reality could be. This is such a strange paradox because on the one hand we cannot distance ourselves from our own perspectives, on the other hand we seem to get a grasp on what a conception of an absolute reality might be by thinking about it. As James Osborn writes in his paper ‘On the difference Between Being and Object’;
‘And this happens not because we are destined to the cruel fate of “correlationism”, not because the philosopher is unable to think beings outside the circle of the subject’s thought, but because one does not escape a circular path by reversing directions.’ 13
Like OOO and like Stroud, I am convinced that philosophy should play a leading role in the quest for understanding what it means to be ‘an object in a world of objects’ and that we need to continue the metaphysical quest for (absolute) reality. But the philosopher who asks the questions regarding reality does not, in my opinion, have a binding obligation to find an affirmative answer. On the contrary; the inquiry into what it means to be a subject in the world plays an inherent part in this quest, and should be approached from the perspective of the human beings we are, so that we can formulate more specific questions, and foster a deeper understanding of the world we live in. Stroud’s answer to the metaphysical quest is far more subtle and sceptic towards the positive affirmation of understanding a metaphysical and absolute conception of reality and bridging the subject- object gap, and as such he might dodge this paradox. But if a negative and non-infallible answer is what Stroud meant with a ‘disappointing’ 14 conclusion of his quest for reality, I am not disappointed at all. I believe that the question of what it means to be human and to take part in an interconnected world has become ever more urgent and I think that OOO tries to discard the traditional course of philosophy by focusing too much on finding a new objectivity, and I would like to conclude that thus far, they have failed to refute the Kantian dualism.
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