Philosopher Profile: Justus Buchler (Part 2)

Justus Buchler (1914-1991)

Part 2: Natural Complexes

The previous post discussed Buchler’s philosophy of experience and judgment. Here I want to follow up with his account of the world in which experience transpires.

Buchler moves from a concern with human judgment and practice to the broader question of what, in general, exists, and what may be said of it. This does not indicate any change of position on Buchler’s part, as far as I can tell, but it makes explicit a formerly unstated ontology, an ontology as roomy as one could wish. With Wittgenstein, he might say that “the world is all that is the case,” but with two caveats: first, for Buchler the world is comprised of things, not facts--except that facts are also things, as indeed are rocks, paintings, theorems, marriages, courts, bank accounts, comic book characters and the settings of fantasy novels. Second, there is no sum, no totality of such things; for Buchler, “the world” is a term useful for communication, but metaphysically speaking there is no “world,” no final, complete super order which is a “thing” comprised of everything. In Buchler’s capacious view of the world where the world is “whatever is, in whatever way it is,” we cannot say that there is “a” world, some distinct totality of whatever is in whatever way it is. In this way Buchler is not only one of the most radical empiricists in the American tradition, but he is among the most radical pluralists. In his words, the orders of the world are “innumerable.”

Buchler’s considerable ambition here is worth underscoring here. He is seeking terms general enough to talk about the being of anything at all: e.g., a haricut, a bowling ball, a grudge, a waterfall, a well-executed swan dive, the wiping out of a species by a predator, the Planck length, Benjamin Franklin’s invention of bifocals, the love of Desdemona for Othello, the building of the Great Wall of China. Note that such a list includes ordinary “objects,” as well as possibilities, relations, fictional entities, changes, processes, and events. Generally speaking, the key feature of Buchler’s metaphysics is this: When describing the world we cannot do so in terms of metaphysical “simples.” Whatever is, is “complex.” This means, first, whatever is, is in any way it is, (so there are no modal restrictions); and second, whatever is locates, but is also located by, whatever else is.

This vision of the world is richly pluralistic. No one thing any more “real” than any other thing, a radical egalitarianism which Buchler's expresses with the shorthand “ontological parity,” a phrase whose significance in his thought can hardly be overstressed. (Its rough equivalent today is “flatness.”) Moreover, and complementing this parity, all things are what they are in relation to at least some other thing, whether by including some other thing pertinent to it as a “trait” which belongs to it, or by being included within some larger or more common relevant “order” which locates that thing itself as a trait. This is Buchler's doctrine of “ordinality,” and indeed Buchler's philosophy is sometimes referred to as an “ordinal metaphysics.” Thus, all things, being naturally complex, are orders in that they contain traits as located features of the world. Those traits in turn serve as orders which further locate other traits, and so on all the way down. Likewise, any natural complex is also itself a trait in the sense that it is located by some other more encompassing order, and so on, all the way “up,” so to speak. So all things, being naturally complex, are both traits located by other things but also orders which locate other things. “Natural complex” and “order” thus become interchangeable. These twin notions of “ontological parity” and “ordinality” with their corresponding terms of “trait,” “order,” and “natural complex” brings us to Buchler’s specific metaphysical program, spelled out in his later work.

Buchler’s metaphysics is outlined in his book Metaphysics of Natural Complexes. The book is originally divided into four chapters (the second expanded edition has additional valuable material, including the essay “Probing the Idea of Nature,” which anticipates many developments in more recent “without-” or “after-” nature pluralism-ecologies). Three of these original chapters lay out a pair of concepts or categories intended to address an aspect of his metaphysics.

The first such pair, alescence (derived from coalescence, a “coming together” of complexes) and prevalence (derived from “prevail”), aims to conceptualize permanence and change. Buchler intends these terms to cover the full range of what may figure as the grammatical subject for the copula “is.” Both terms are essential, for neither existence by itself nor becoming by itself is a broad enough category to capture the being of any being; not all complexes change, and not all complexes are entities.

For Buchler, complexity in the metaphysical sense—a complex’s “constituted-ness”—is irreducible. Each complex has what Buchler calls an order, and its being the complex it is follows from its being situated just as it is in this order. No complex is ontologically prior to its relations or its qualities; Buchler says rather that it “prevails” as related, as qualified. (Ordinality and relation are the second pair of categories addressed in the book.) While a complex may have ordinal locations in common with other complexes, still, since each complex is itself an order, it is also different from every other complex.

An example may help. A city is a city because of its situation in the order of cities; this situation means that it is related to other cities, having common qualities, e.g. commerce, governance, law, all of a certain type. These aspects, n.b., are also complexes. Any city qua city thus prevails in the order of cities, not over other cities laterally, but over its own traits; it is in turn also located in orders of human habitations, political institutions, natural ecosystems, and so on. But a city is also an order itself, and as such, locates other complexes: its various populations, its legal codes, its traffic laws, and on and on. Any complex thus is irreducibly complex, has relations and traits in common with other complexes, and is also irreducibly itself, i.e., is capable of being singled out as distinct. Because all complexes are irreducibly complex, no complex is more or less complex than any other; relatedness cannot be limited in principle.

There is, however, a Buchlerian distinction between two sorts of relation between a complex and its traits, the “weakly” relevant, which pertain to a complex’s range or scope, and the “strongly” relevant, which determine the complex’s character or quiddity, its “integrity”. Because every complex is specifically located, no trait or complex affects all other traits or complexes, even though every trait and every complex relates, strongly or weakly, to some other trait or complex. This again shows Buchler’s strong pluralism. For, were all complexes inter-related, there would either be one single complex, or at least complexes would not be separately distinguishable.

Buchler sets out a series of generalizations which may be seen as his system in skeletal form:
• If A is one complex and B is another, they may be related or unrelated.
• If A is related to B, B is related to A.
• If A is related to B, each is a determinant of the scope of the other.
• If A is related to B, each is relevant to the other.
• If A and B are relevant to each other, A is related to B.
• If A is related to B, each may be either strongly or weakly relevant to the other.
• If A is a determinant of the integrity of B, it is thereby a determinant of the scope of B.
• If A is a determinant of the scope of B, it may or may not thereby be a determinant of the integrity of B.
• If A is related to B in order O, it may not be related to B in order P.
• If A is strongly (or weakly) relevant to B in order O, it may be weakly (or strongly) relevant to B in order P.

(Metaphysics of Natural Complexes, 2nd ed., pp 108-109)
As distinguishable, complexes have boundaries, or limits. Limits themselves may be indeterminate, but the existence of such limits is entailed by the determinedness of a complex. For Buchler a limit is indeterminate insofar as it entails possibilities, and determinate insofar as it entails actualities; possibility and actuality constitute Buchler’s third set of concepts.

Since any possibility is itself determinate (prevailing, as it must, in a specific ordinal location), a limit’s indeterminateness is thus “determinately indeterminate.” A complex has a range of possibilities; but this same range will also exclude certain possibilities. However, as regards its possibilities, the limit of a complex is indeterminate. It becomes determinate upon the event of actualization, which in turn is a condition of further possibilities. This means that the limit, and thus the determinateness, of any complex, is not itself finally determinable.

All such terms—traits, relations, limits, possibilities, actualities, and so on—are themselves complexes. Buchler’s ontology is thus one of the most starkly “flat” of which I know, and this underscores one dimension of his relevance to speculative realism. But Buchler seems to me less concerned than much recent philosophy to accommodate science. He espouses no stark anti-scientistic attitude, but he is aware that science operates on a different level. Thus, Buchler wants to formulate a coherent and useful vocabulary for proception regardless of its biological substrate. In principle this can be extended well beyond the human, beyond the terrestrial, or indeed the biological. This quest for conceptualizations adequate for accounting for experience per se, and not any psychological account of experience, is to my mind very Husserlian.

Historically, one can situate Buchler as part of that largely Anglo-American stream of thinkers that descended from the first confluence of Whitehead, Bergson, and pragmatism. This stream includes figures such Charles Hartshorne, John William Miller, Dorothy Emmet, Paul Weiss, Brand Blanshard, Timothy Sprigge, and Robert Neville—all figures whose work is outside the twentieth century’s prevailing academic philosophical fashions, and, not coincidentally, who were reading Whitehead before he was re-discovered by Deleuze and Stengers. (Some of course were Whitehead’s students.) In Buchler’s case one obstacle to recognition is plain old unfamiliarity—“if he’s so great, why haven’t I heard of him?” How did it come to be that such a monumentally ambitious and formidable American philosopher has been so neglected? In part it may stem from a dread of parochialism—the singular challenge of a prophet receiving honor at home—but there are more substantive reasons. Buchler’s style is occasionally challenging (he has a minor penchant for neologism), although when you compare him with Heidegger, this seems a quibble. I sometimes think Buchler’s neglect in speculative realist circles may have something to do with his close proximity of Peirce. The concern to avoid the faintest whiff of correlationism has led to a skittishness about anything that smacks of either pragmati[ci]sm or of semiotics; the former seems too relativist, the latter too close to the much-despised linguistic turn.

I would like for this précis of Buchler’s philosophy to spark some interest in his work, not just because Buchler is relevant to a number of already-stated speculative realist themes. He has also articulated a possible way of negotiating what I think are the challenges facing speculative realism. These are, on the one hand, the relation of order and hierarchy to flat ontology (which Buchler addresses with the pairing of ontological parity and ordinality), and on the other, the articulation of philosophy’s self-understanding as an undertaking that is human, but not inherently restricted to homo sapiens. The way Buchler moved from his early work on human judgment and experience to his later metaphysics (and then circled back to poetry, in a work I have not treated here) gives an example of how philosophy may seriously and systematically eschew anthropocentrism without being overly troubled by the “correlationist” bugbear.