• StreetlightX
    Picking up on some thoughts from Giorgio Agamben’s The Use of Bodies, Agamben makes the claim that ever since Aristotle, ontology in the West has largely been dominated by what might be called an ontology of possession (this is not a term Agamben himself uses). Such an ontology is, roughly, one that distinguishes between subject and predicate, essence and accident, or thing and property. The idea is that for anything that ‘is’, it exists such that it ‘possesses’ properties. There is the apple (subject/essence), and it is red (predicate/accident). In fact, for Agamben, the history of Western philosophy has been, in some senses, nothing but the attempt to work out exactly how the relation between these terms are meant to be properly thought.

    While the historical reconstruction is interesting, I’m going to skip over a lot of that and move straight to Agamben’s proposal of an entirely different approach to ontology: an ontology of expression (Agamben again, doesn’t quite call it that). Against the ontology of possession, in which a thing ‘possess’ a property, Agamben suggests that we think instead in terms of an ontology of expression, in which things express not what they are (i.e. ‘red’), but how they are. The apple does not possess the property ‘red’, so much as it expresses itself red-ly. It’s not that the tree is green, but that the tree greens.

    The primary difference between the two approaches to ontology is that in the expressive ontology, the thing (whatever it is) coincides entirely with its expression: it is not something apart from its expression and does not possess it as though it stood outside of it’s own ‘properties’. This approach to ontology is in fact not new, and finds one of it’s first articulations in the philosophy of Spinoza, for whom “particular things are nothing but modes wherein the attributes of God find expression in a definite and determinate way.” (Spinoza, Ethics). And as Agamben points out, the term ‘mode’ indicates the way or manner (its ‘modality’) a thing exists: it’s ‘how’ and not its ‘what’.

    What I find appealing about an approach to ontology that takes expression rather than possession as its guiding star is that it aims to defuse some of the more intractable problems of philosophy. Instead of treating subjects and predicates as stand-alone entities which must then somehow be put into relation (with all the attendant Platonic and Aristotelian muddles that comes with that problem), expression begins from the point of view of thinking them together: from the immanence of the mode to its ‘substance’. As Agamben puts it, “[conceiving] existence as a mode [as expression], entails a reversal of the Aristotelian priority … of essence, [which] renders individuation, which is to say, the passage from essence to existence, incomprehensible”.

    Anyway, this is a small attempt to summarise some of my reading and generate whatever discussion may come of it by those who might be interested.
  • StreetlightX
    Another appeal to me of the turn to expression is that it accords nicely with Deleuze’s insistence that the priority afforded to ‘what is…?’ questions in philosophy have been massively detrimental to the whole enterprise:

    What is…? This noble question is supposed to concern the essence, and is opposed to vulgar questions which only refer to the example or the accident. Thus you do not ask who is beautiful, but what is the Beautiful. Not where and when there is justice, but what is the Just. Not how “two” is obtained, but what is the dyad. Not how much, but what… And yet this privilege of the What is…? is itself revealed to be confused and dubious, even in Platonism and the Platonic tradition.

    For the question What is? in the end only animates the so-called aporetic dialogues. Is it possible that the question of essence is that of contradiction, and that it itself throws us into inextricable contradictions? As soon as the Platonic dialectic becomes a serious and positive thing, we see it take other forms: who? in the Politics, how much? in the Philebus, where and when in the Sophist, in what case in the Parmenides”. (Deleuze, The Method of Dramatisation).
  • Posty McPostface
    This leaves open the question, what does substance express?
  • Janus

    Sub stance expresses under standing.
  • StreetlightX
    The idea I believe is that the modes express substance and that substance is nothing other than its expression in the modes.
  • Posty McPostface
    Sub stance expresses under standing.Janus

    You lost me.
  • Janus
    Yes, this is to say that substance is not 'something' over and above relation or process. Identity is likewise not other than difference.
  • Janus

    Stance= standing
    (I hate explaining jokez).
  • fdrake
    Do you think this metaphysics of expression admits of different degrees of expression?

    The star is shiny -> The star shines -> the star luminesces with brightness X and frequency spectrum Y.

    Or are expressions only discretised into the presence or absence of a modality?
  • tim wood
    Poetic, to be sure. But is the apple red? Deconstruct the question? That seems a lot of work. Red is how the apple is? Or red is how this apple is?

    I'm forced to wonder if language is in some sense just a system that evolves always towards a kind of simplicity, a way of doing that is the most efficient in terms of its uses. Implied is that correctives, and in its imperfect efficiency there is manifestly often a need for correctives - maybe call it clarification - and the need for them is simply part of the program. That the slip and slide of meaning and application has slipped and slid to a "least effort" form, and necessary refinement simply requires more energy and effort, and it all just goes with the territory.

    Language becomes one of those things that it seems could be improved, but that so-called improvement is not so easy and usually makes things worse. Are apples red? Is this apple red? Sure. Are apples red and is this apple red? No and no. It looks like it comes down to the application, with added clarification as needed.
  • StreetlightX
    Do you think this metaphysics of expression admits of different degrees of expression?fdrake

    Yes, but I think exactly what this means would need to be carefully specified. It's not that the star luminesces more or less brightly, but that the star itself qua luminescent has more or less a degree of being. Again, the danger to watch out for is in ascribing degress of expression to this or that property of a subject, and not the thing itself. Exactly what this means is, I think, something open to different readings: Spinoza thought about such degrees in terms of conatus, for example (the 'striving for a thing in its persistence', roughly), while Nietzsche will think of it in terms of differential wills-to-power (which everything 'is'). I use these examples because I think it helps show that the two different approaches to ontology are just that - approaches, which can be cashed out in different ways (just as 'posessive ontology' has undergone many permutations thoughout its history).

    Deleuze and Agamben are two others I would fit in this lineage of expressive ontology as well, although they too differ radically in the detail of how that is worked out.
  • apokrisis
    The idea I believe is that the modes express substance and that substance is nothing other than its expression in the modes.StreetlightX

    This points the conversation in the right direction - towards an immanent, emergent, process view - but it doesn't really deal with the ontological issue of how modes get expressed and individuation becomes a substantial fact.

    One has to continue on all the way to a contextual or constraints-based view of causality, where it is the limitation on possibility that is the story of individuation. The essence of something is defined by the information that limits the variety of its fluctuations. And so then any individual thing is a hylomorphic mix of that limited state and then the further fluctuations which haven't been suppressed because they don't matter, given the general purpose or form in play.

    So the Aristotelian four causes/hylomorphic view of substantial being or individuation was pretty much correct after all. His logical talk picks out a hierarchy of predication. It sounds like he is talking about substances with properties. And indeed, that logical atomism is a pretty handy model of reality if you just want the quick and dirty reductionist approach. It does the job when you are living in a Cosmos that is mostly large and cold, and being is in fact in its most highly developed or concrete state.

    But behind that post-substance model of being - objects with properties - is the pre-substantial or developmental story. And here it is a case of top-down constraints in interaction with bottom-up degrees of freedom.

    Instead of individuation being some kind of simple expression - a reversion to monistic thinking - it is the complex product of a historical or contextual repression. Possibilities get constrained in some globally general fashion. And then particulars exist as differences that don't make a difference - to the purpose or form of the thing.

    A horse could be white, brown or black. From a species point of view, these are unconstrained genetic possibilities. Melanocytes offer these basic degrees of freedom. They are differences that don't make a difference when it comes to being able to breed. And so a property of being horse comes to include this range of hide colour as a matter of accidental expression. But a horse - as defined by the constraints of a genetic lineage, the information of an evolutionary history - is strictly limited in its likelihood of expressing other identities, like possum, or tiger, or goat.

    So Aristotle is great because two ontological models can be found in his metaphysics. There is the simple reductionist model that is atomism, where being is already substantial and possesses inherent properties. This is the upward construction or composition based ontology that normal predicate logic talk picks out.

    Then there is the other holistic or systems view of ontology that is the four causes/hylomorphic model. Substance develops into crisply individuated being by the imposition of downward constraints that limit the possibilities for the accidental. And essentially that is an open-ended view of being as a limitation of the accidental is not the elimination of the accidental. Indeed, this becomes an ontology where the accidental is also something that is ontically fundamental. As Peirce put it, the synechism or continuity of constraints is matched by the tychism or spontaneity of pure chance.

    A complete ontology of nature thus has two useful models. Reductionism and holism. We can understand reality in mereological terms as an atomistic collection of individuals, or instead as a complex developmental story of individuation.

    Again, the move from possession to expression is too simple a shift in emphasis. It only gets us to the first step of arguing for emergence. And that remains inherently mysterious as it does not explain why individuation should take some general mode.

    If the goal is to account for essence and accident in some fashion more sophisticated than subject and predicate, then you actually need to continue on to the full-blown holism of a constraints-based ontology.
  • Wayfarer
    It might be worth considering the Buddhist criticism of substance ontologies in this regard. As is well-known, Buddhists ‘deconstruct’ the notion of an underlying subject [or substance] that possesses attributes. This deconstructive approach is why modern phenomenologists [e.g. Varela and Maturana, among others] have often looked to the Buddhist analysis of ‘dependent origination’ for a more dynamic appraisal of the nature of being. Actually it is quite in keeping with your own analysis, in that the Buddhist attitude is roughly that all of what we call ‘attributes’ are more like habits [technically, ‘sankhara’], which through constant repitition assume certain forms - which are then mistaken by the ‘substance ontologists’ for truly existing realities, where they’re really more like dynamic patterns of action and reaction.
  • Akanthinos

    Of course, you had to start this topic when I'm on page 21 of the book... :shade:
  • StreetlightX
    Agamben's actually piqued my interest a little in Buddhism, insofar as he's been referencing - although sparingly - a couple of Brahmic texts in some of his recent work. One of his recent books was even titled karman in reference to, well, you should know. I'm not sure I'll have time anytime soon to look into it very deeply, but it does seem like there is some cross-over with the ideas at stake here.

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