Enaction, Episteme and Ecology

Adam Robbert has a new post up (here) responding to Levi Bryant’s recent comments (here) on the differences between Bryant’s onticology and Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy.

I urge those interested to go read Bryant’s post as he outlines several key questions that get right at the heart of what a realist metaphysics needs to address, while offering explicit statements about where he and Harman diverge. I believe Levi throws down the gauntlet in this regard, and would appreciate any type of response from Harman, if only to further our understanding of what might be at stake in such considerations. With Bryant’s most recent comments it seems obvious that he continues to move closer to a synthesis of the insights embedded within both process philosophy and object-orientations.

Here I only want to briefly address a few of the issues Adam raises to see if I can clarify in my own thoughts and see where we disagree.

Now I definitely agree with both Adam and Levi on the role of 'enaction' in the genesis of events and objects, but would shy away from relying solely on speculative metaphysics (Whitehead) to describe the operations of any such actually existing instances of enaction. Although I’m not as familiar as I would like to be with Whitehead’s ontology, I see no compelling reason why we should graft such a speculative ontology on to what can be easily understood through empirical investigation of the materials and dynamics involved. I argue that enaction can only be explained with reference to the materiality and expressivity (actual properties) of whatever specifc entities are involved.

For example, the enaction of a football game can be described as the interplay and contingently structured conjunctions of atoms, organisms, leather, nylon, metal, grass, oxygen – each with their own properties – such that a particular state of football affairs, composition, assemblage, or “regime of attraction” emerges. Likewise with, say, neo-liberal ideology; which relies on the confluence and circulation of textbooks, discourses, humans, learned schema, guns, the university of Chicago, vast networks of affiliation between elites, exploitable governance systems in “the third world”, etc. The historicity and particular character of enactions is generated through the activities and relations of specific substances and properties.

Yet Adam writes:
“[K]nowledge (or epistemes in this case) are embodied in specific media (e.g., brains, books, and bytes), are not “other than” those media and, in this way, also share the same ontological qualities as ‘physical’ interactions between, say, tornados and barn doors.” [source]
Although I share Adam’s view that epistemic activities are generated within distributed networks (ecologies) of media and materials, I am still left wondering what justifies the claim that such activities “share the same ontological qualities” as rocks? Epistemic events are enactions involving very different substances and relations than, say, a fireplace ‘event’, as an assemblage of rocks. The properties and qualities which go into these two events, and the emergent conditions they each enact are very different in kind and effect in ways that make all the difference.

I think the problem of understanding the difference between epistemic relations and causal relations is crucial here. ‘Causal’ in this context is meant to refer to structural integrities and material-energetic influences (affect generally) whereas ‘epistemic’ is meant to signal animal imagination and symbolic representations. In this sense, imagining or visualizing or hallucinating punching someone in the face is ontologically different than punching someone in the face. Both the imagining and the punching are Real, but they are deployments of very different capacities.

Put another way, epistemic imagination is qualitatively different than radioactive waste, for example. There is an abstract totemic (projective and imaginal) quality to symbolic apprehension that is not shared by rocks or radioactive waste. Therefore simply equating the properties and capacities of thought with pre-imaginal properties and capacities based on some refication of ontological tendencies does nothing to add to our understanding of the Real. Erasing the differences which obtain here through a type of will to speculation only serves to confound.

My problem with “withdrawal” is based on this distinction. Objects are absolutely withdrawn from our conceptions of them (as Wittgenstein and Derrida both claimed), but are only partially withdrawn from our embodied capacities for directly affecting or intervening in their substantial configurations.

Adam continues:
"Object-oriented philosophy’s account of withdrawal holds true for both ontological and epistemological domains, where the ontic and the epistemic can be distinguished analytically to perform certain philosophical tasks, but are ultimately integrated in the embodiment of beings such that epistemic and cognitive ecosystems are ontologically real in the same way that other ecosystems are." [source
I’m not sure I follow the logic here? Cognitive ecosystems can be considered Real in the same sense as “other ecosystems”, but not in the same “way”. In fact, I would reframe all of this by suggesting, rather, that epistemic activities are features of the very same ecosystems as other entities and assemblages but they embody very distinct properties. Thus animal cognition is generated out of the same ecological circumstances as photosynthesis but the enaction of human cognitive events includes the emergence of imaginal representation in addition to physical processes. Epistemic relations and activities (as emergent capacities) are as Real as other purely physical relations and activities, but not in the same way because each set of activities have intrinsic onto-specific organizations, associations and properties.

To be clear, I don’t oppose epistemology and ontology because how we know is a function of what there is. Epistemic relations are in fact one type of ontological relation - only with distinct properties and operations.


Anonymous said...


Jason Hills said...

I would disagree with:

“Epistemic events are enactions involving very different substances and relations than, say, a fireplace ‘event’, as an assemblage of rocks. The properties and qualities which go into these two events, and the emergent conditions they each enact are very different in kind and effect in ways that make all the difference.”

The conscious experience of the fire is something that subsumes the mere material/physical/energetic/etc. properties. I would be tempted to use the word “supervenes,” but contemporary (mostly analytic) philosophy reads that dualistically rather than emergently. or to put in in the terms that occur right after this quotation, the causal becomes the epistemic under certain conditions—the physical semiotic becomes a biosemiotic becomes a conscious semiotic.

I am not defending OOO on this, but offering another way to look at the the ontology coming from American philosophy. It sounds like you are bifurcating ontology and epistemology when there is no reason to do so IF their relation is understood in a certain way.

michael- said...

I think I’m doing a terrible job explaining myself if you think I’m advocating for a kind of dualism here. I believe cognition is an activity grounded in physical and biological processes, but that conceptual thought/epistemic operations are imaginal and projective ‘illusions‘ (for lack of a better term) generated by the play and normative dynamics of socially performed linguistic tokens and symbols. This is what I refer to as phantasy.

Now I understand that the above is quite a bundle of associations and would require a lot of unpacking to translate into traditional philosophical concepts, but I what I want to emphasize at this point is that the term ‘epistemic‘ for me refers only to the conceptual, symbolic and imaginal dimensions of human cognition and not cognition generally. This is to say, I want to advocate for a distinction between cognitive processes such as embodied perception (raw experience) and the semantic content of symbolic memory and linguistic projections (psychological apprehension). When I refer to epistemic relations I mean to signal the operations of conceptual thought and not perception per se. In this sense there a massive different (in kind and not just degree) between imagining having sex with Katy Perry and actually having sex with Katy Perry. There is nothing ‘causal’ about phantastic projection.

So applying the term episteme or experience so broadly does little for our appreciation of the complexities involved in all these processes and relations. Conscious experience is assembled/enacted from both visceral (physical) and intentional (semantic) aspects.

I’m less concerned about the way the notions of epistemology and ontology are deployed in Western philosophical discourse than I am about thinking the Real. I will repeat the last sentence in the post above: “I don’t oppose epistemology and ontology because how we know is a function of what there is. Epistemic relations are in fact one type of ontological relation - only with distinct properties and operations.”

michael- said...

Dirk, that URL isn't working for me. What was the article about?

Jason Hills said...


I am publishing an article precisely on the imaginative projection of meaning—it’s my speciality. Whether you intend a dualism or not, from my perspective, there might not be much of a difference. I would agree with everything you wrote in your first paragraph and then repeat myself; show me a difference that makes a difference. Is not the conceptual or symbolic also the physical? If not, you’re hankering for dualism. I have actually worked out the basic metaphysics in the mentioned article as well, and it shows up in a lot of my blog posts. I cannot claim to be the originator of the notion, just a person refining it, as it originates from contemporary Dewey scholarship.

As for the word, “experience” not being big enough to handle the complexities, sure. I wrote a long glossary of terms that make fine distinctions, but I won’t bore you with that unless you need some help taking a nap. So, we really don’t have to be disagreeing here.

Adam Robert has the time to say the same kind of thing that I am, so you can presume that our views are very close when you're reading his post.

Jason Hills said...


I bet you'll find your dualism here:

"This is to say, I want to advocate for a distinction between cognitive processes such as embodied perception (raw experience) and the semantic content of symbolic memory and linguistic projections (psychological apprehension). "

Anonymous said...

m, I sent a copy of that text to your email.

Glen said...

Interesting post!

I am not sure what Jason's concern is with a 'dualism'? (Maybe we mean different things by 'dualism'?) Not at the level of ontology, but a distinction that builds on the points from his first comment above.

The experience of the fire, to some degree, implicates previous experiences of fire. Briefly, memory is in-acted as a biosemiotic, possibly consciously or possibly not (to various degrees and mixtures). What modalities therefore constitute the event of 'this' fire that extend beyond the conventional spatio-temporal coordinates of the fire here. The thisness of the fire here implicates more than (and less than, at different levels of consciousness) the physical semiotic of the fire here.

To what degree is such a transversal distribution of such elements a function of the specific capacities of the human (or any other entity that can fold the cosmos)? Does this invite a distinction and possibly a 'dualism' depending on how it is defined?

Any 'entity' capable of an epistemology necessary invites such intensive involvements from problematically contiguous experiences. (Problematic contiguity as compared to Aristotlean spatial or temporal contiguity.)

Jason Hills said...

The concern about "dualism" in this case is the following. I want to forestall any division of the physical and the semiotic into separate ontological realms (unless one has godo reasons to do so, and I'd like to see that argument). Any actual sign system must have a vehicle in which it is instantiated, whether the actual fire or the neurological conditions that give rise to the idea of fire as connected to a past fire. Saying that these two are different in kind can be troublesome, especially if the distinction is ontologized. I'm still not sure if Michael was doing that, but it looked like it.

Regardless, this conversation is more of a side conversation to the dueling blog posts with Adam Robert and others. E.g., Adam's latest post reminds us what is at stake in such seemingly fine distinctions--heck much of process philosophy was founded on noting the crucial significance of them.

michael- said...

Jason: "Is not the conceptual or symbolic also the physical?"

A: Yes, but it involves more complexity than simply physical systems. Certainly there are brain correlates which instantiate mental activity, as embodied cognition per se, but conceptual thought also involves the mediation of phenomenological experience through the recall and projective association of socially afforded linguistic tokens, non-local abstract semantic systems (informational artifacts) and normative codes. There is an extended, enacted and intangible phastasmic quality to human imagination that is irreducible to physical activities alone.

I would probably enjoy our glossary greatly Jason. Please share if you are so inclined.

re: dualism - as I wrote over at Adam's place:

"Human conceptual imagination is an emergent feature derived from but irreducible to the primordial sensitivities of matter and energy. Conceptuality or thought enacts realities (call it the noosphere if you like) that extend the capacities of matter beyond the physical substratum. It is in this sense that epistemic relations (knowledge) are distinct from causal relations (perception). Rocks have sensitive causal relations (what you might call prehension) but they certainly do not have the emergent capacity for epistemic relations."

I think they way you folks are using "experience" here glosses over some of the more fine grain distinctions that need to be included if we want to capture the complexities involved. In my view it is always more important to be sensitive to how things differ than it is to emphasize how things seem the same. So what matters is exactly how human thought is different than rock "experience". Universally applying abstracted ontological tendencies provides very little in terms of explanatory power.

In the end I think you and I would agree on a lot of this stuff if only we uses similar terminology.

Jason Hills said...


Again, your words indicate a lack of familiarity with my position rather than a disagreement.

I never said that conscious experience is reducible to the physical; I argue for emergent naturalism that is neither a “materialism” nor a “physicalism.” I’m not even sure what those terms mean for most, as I hear a different definition just about every time I ask. I am also not arguing that everything is an “energetic field.” Any one of those positions is a simplistic extreme meant to sell books with shock value.

Your description of conscious experience does not appear to differ from mine. Rather, as I’ve already warned you, I’m coming from a highly developed metaphysical background that is likely radically different from what you are imputing to me. Sadly, that also makes it hard to talk to thinkers outside the tradition, as their instincts are to read the wrong thing into everything written. Sometimes I get together with Asianists and we cry into our tea over it.

I would strongly argue against the casualness in in your distinction between “epistemic relations” and “causal relations” as if they were disjoint. Any epistemic act must be caused, but not all causality is efficient or “direct” causality. Hence, I would insist the causal relations can also become epistemic relations, but when they do, we should not assume a univocity of “cause” in the history of that process. What was once a process of merely physical-efficient causes includes distinct structural causation in a homeostatic organic system.

In my own appropriation of pragmatist terminology, I use an adjective to describe the phase of experience in question, e.g., experience, bodily experience, conscious experience, attentive experience (mind/lingistic), etc., each of which has continuous by distinct “causal” structures. In fact, Americans tend not to use the word “cause” because it gives most everyone the wrong connotations. So, if you want fine-grain distinctions, you just need to learn more of the field. I certainly am not going to do the disservice of trotting out that terminology to an unsuspecting audience. All that you ask for is done and much of it has been out there for decades. This is also why I find OOO and a lot of continental process thought not to be as exciting as it seems to be for others—because I’ve already seen a lot of those moves.

Jason Hills said...

I can forward my forthcoming article on pragmatist aesthetics and a new theory of imagination if you want to see all the specifics of what I discuss. It covers almost all these bases. In fact, you'd only need to read the first few sections where I give the theory of experience and imagination in general.

Jason Hills said...

I have posted a short explanation of my view of imagination per the pragmatist and Americanist tradition.

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