Recently, I’ve been closely following the discussion on several blogs about whether or not ideas count as things, objects, etc. See Adam’s two-part post (here and here) for an excellent summary of what’s been said so far. After thinking a bit about it, I feel as though I can weigh in with some hopefully useful thoughts. I’m approaching this not as a philosopher – because I am not, and I’m not familiar enough with the different strands of philosophy that have come up to make a significant contribution there – but as an anthropologist. So to begin, I’ll talk about why this discussion matters to me, and then I’ll provide my own sense of how we can approach it.
Why does it matter?
As an anthropologist, I need theories that are useful in my research. If I encounter a philosophical discussion that I can’t see bearing on the work that I do, then I usually ignore it and let the philosophers duke it out until someone shows me how/why it is relevant to me. In this case, I am convinced that it’s relevant, but I think the philosophy side-steps the important issue a bit. I’ll explain why in the next section, but first let me explain why I think it’s a relevant question.
I have talked a lot on this blog about “work” (which for me is synonymous with the “struggle” in the blog’s title), and work is clearly a key concept for me. I would go so far as to say that it is central to any analysis that I do or would do. I want an approach to work that encompasses all of the different kinds of work that is done by all of the different kinds of beings that exist in the world – humans, plants, animals, objects, etc. (I usually include ideas in this list, but I’ll hold off for now). Too often researchers and theorists take work as either a physical activity that alters material conditions or as an (embodied) knowledge producing activity. In both cases, certain types of work are foregrounded or even privileged over others, and certain types of effects are ignored or underrepresented. This is why I am interested in an ontological approach that accepts the reality of both materials and ideas (which both Michael and Adam, I think, do, though in different ways). As a result, I can look at work as the (always collaborative) process of reality production, and ask “What kind of reality is being produced through the work that these people (and others) are doing?” I can look at all of the different kinds of effects of their work, from knowledge production to material change. I can see it all as different forms of “relationship building” such that new realities are constituted and maintained or destroyed with each moment. And I can talk about the work that is done by a logger or a coal miner in the same way that I would talk about the work that is done by a stock broker or even by myself. And finally, I can ask what kind of work can be done to produce a different reality? What ideas can we produce, what infrastructural changes can be made, what relationships can be built? And how can these things be done? By what methods or means?
Thus, the discussion over whether or not ideas count as objects is relevant, but I’m not sure that it’s hitting the right mark. Let me explain.
Are Ideas Objects?
Because I’m an anthropologist and not a philosopher, and I therefore need concepts that are useful, I take the pragmatic approach to philosophical discussion. In other words, I ask myself “Does it make a difference to me and my work?” For me, the pragmatic difference lies in whether or not we see ideas as real – this is the approach I need to be able to do my work. Generally, ideas are treated as fantasies or merely epiphenomena. They are not real, they are just the way we understand the world and only have effects as the secondary cause of our physical actions in response to them. This is the distinction I reject. I follow Bryant’s Ontic Principle in claiming that a being is real to the extent that it makes a difference (this is also the criterion used by Latour). That is beings are real if they can have an effect upon and be affected by others. To me, ideas do make a difference. It’s true, they are the products of our relationships with other beings (as all beings are the products of relationships between other beings), but also produce effects in excess of those relationships. They have a kind of agency.
Now, I don’t think that Michael is arguing that ideas are merely epiphenomena, but that they are emergent from the relations between different material beings. I can see in this formulation that ideas could still be counted as real by the definition given above. And I think it’s obvious that Adam agrees that ideas are real based on his classifying them as objects. As a result, the pragmatic difference is not necessarily in whether or not ideas are “objects” but in whether or not ideas are recognized to have effects. I can see how, in both accounts, ideas could have effects, and, to the extent that this is true, I think that there is no pragmatic difference between ideas as “objects” and ideas as emergent phenomena. However, I think that the ideas as emergent phenomena approach rests on a very fuzzy boundary between accepting and rejecting the reality of ideas as defined here. Given Michael’s professed materialism, and the various discussions we’ve had in the past on the topic, I’m not entirely clear on where he stands on that boundary. The question I suppose I would ask is if he agrees that ideas can have effects?