Thoughts on Flat Ontology

The term ‘flat ontology’ was coined by Manuel DeLanda in his book Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Flat ontologies are opposed there to hierarchical ontologies in which the structure and evolution of reality is explained by transcendent organizing principles such as essences,  organizing categories or natural states:

[While] an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status (DeLanda 2004, p. 58).

In a flat ontology the organization of entities is explained with reference to interactions between particular, historically locatable entities. It is never the result of entities of one ontological kind being related to an utterly different order of being like a God, a transcendental subject, a natural state or its associated species essences (Sober 1980). For flat ontologies, the factors which motivate macro-level change are always emergent from and ‘immanent’ to the systems in which the change occurs.

DeLanda’s characterization of flat ontology comes during a discussion of the ontological status of species in which he sides with philosophers of biology like David Hull and Elliot Sober who hold that species are differentiated populations that emerge from variations among organisms and the evolutionary feedback processes these drive (DeLanda 2004, 60). For DeLanda, evolutionary feedback instances a universal tendency for identifiable things and their properties to emerge from intensive  or (or productive) differences such as variations in heritable adaptive differences or chemical concentrations (Ibid., 58-9; 70). Thus the formation of soap bubbles depends on the tendency of component molecules to assume a lower a state of free energy, minimizing inter-molecular distances and cancelling the forces exerted on individual molecules by their neighbors (Ibid., 15). The process instantiates an abstract tendency for near-equilibrium systems with free energy to ‘roll down’ to a macrostate attractor. Thus for DeLanda’s ontology (following Deleuze) individuals are not products of the operations of a Kantian/Husserlian transcendental subject but of the cancellation of intensive differences and the generative processes they drive. These processes are governed by mathematical structures – e.g. ‘virtual’ attractors or ‘singularities’ – which are ‘quasi-causal’  influences on their trajectory through a particular state space (Ibid., 14).

How do we reconcile this second ontological claim (which I will refer to as ‘transcendental materialism’) with an adherence to a flat ontology of individuals. Is ontological flatness merely a regional principle applying to the ‘bits’ of the universe where differentiated particulars have already emerged from intensive processes, rendering their generative mechanisms irrelevant to understanding or categorizing the entities they have become? Moreover, if these processes are explained in terms of the virtual structures they exhibit, such as their singularities, doesn’t TM just reintroduce an ontological hierarchy between particular and universal?*

Graham Harman argues that the quasi-causal role of the abstract or virtual in DeLanda’s thought vitiates its commitment to a flat ontology for which “atoms have no more reality than grain markets or sports franchises” (Harman 2008, 370). Thus while depriving species and kinds of any distinctive organizing role, DeLanda inflates the role of the ‘genus’ in the form of virtual patterns (such as the relationship between the topology of systems and their capacity for autocatalysis explored of Stuart Kauffman and others). Secondly, subordinating individuals to their historical generative processes is seen by Harman as a way of ‘undermining’ the status of the particular or individual, which – against the letter of flat ontology – is somehow less real or effective than the intensive processes that produce it.

I think Harman does contemporary philosophers a favour by anatomizing these tensions within DeLanda’s materialism. However, it is far from clear to me that the regulative ideal of ontological flatness necessitates an ontology in which deep individuals and their (largely non-manifest) capacities play the central organizing role. It may be that the generative histories of particulars are relevant only insofar as they leave “lasting fingerprints” on the particulars they generate, making DeLanda’s proposal that we categorize particulars by way of the generative processes that produce them potentially problematic in some cases (Ibid.,374; DeLanda 2004, 50). However, if DeLanda’s (and Deleuze’s) transcendental materialism is correct, then any entity generated as a result of these processes will always be – as Iain Grant emphasizes – a fragile achievement, fatally involved in the play of further intensities (for example, at certain temperature thresholds, the lipid layers dividing biological cells from their watery milieu will simply melt, their ‘cohesion’ as individuals breaks down). The question of typing by generative process is thus an empirical matter of the causal relevance of such processes to the maintenance of individuals at all scales.

There  is no reason why flat ontologies have to be individualist or object-oriented. The  concept of the ‘individual’ and the wider category of the ‘particular’ are often conflated. The latter category may contain events, ‘diffusions’ or collectives: each of which may be insufficiently differentiated to qualify for objecthood (Roden 2004, p. 204). The cancellation of intensive quantities can certainly be accommodated within the category of particular events without threatening flatness (whether this is an orthodox Deleuzean solution doesn’t concern me). Secondly, insofar as the virtual laws of form which DeLanda describes reflect the mathematical structure of morphogenetic processes or systems, then their ontological autonomy need not violate the autonomy of the particular. Rather, morphogenetic structures reflect substrate neutral or formal constraints on the behavior of material systems whose effects are entirely produced by those systems. Quasi-causes do not preempt causes proper but reflect structural similarities between systems with otherwise distinct components.

For example, Stuart Kaufmann has used computer simulation of so called ‘NK Boolean Netoworks’ to argue that the capacity of systems of mutually interacting parts to generate stable auto-catalytic cycles is sensitive to the number of inter-connections between those parts. If the number of connections is large (that is, if the number of connections K to a given component approximates to the number of components N) the system behaves in a random, disordered way. However, for smaller values of K (e.g. K=2) the system settles down to exploring a relatively small number of ‘attractor’ sequences. Kaufmann speculates that this relationship is substrate-neutral – independent of  nature of the system components (they could be nodes in an NK boolean  simulation or chemical substances in a solution).

So a provisional conclusion, here, is that we can retain the role of structural ‘quasi-causes’ and reject the primacy of individuals without compromising the regulative ideal of ontological flatness.

DeLanda, Manuel. (2004), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.

___(2006), A New Philosophy of Society. London: Continuum.

Harman, Graham (2008), ‘Delanda’s Ontology: assemblage and realism’, Continental Philosophy Review 41, 367-383.

Roden, David. (2004), ‘Radical Quotation and Real Repetition’, Ratio: An international journal of analytic philosophy, XVII/2 (2004), pp. 191–206.

Sober, Elliot (1980) ‘Evolution, Population Thinking and Essentialism’, Philosophy of Science 47(3), pp. 350-383.

*We could also ask: is the cancellation of intensive difference merely a regional principle applying to various kinds of thermodynamic systems rather than, say, to more fundamental physical entities or structures?

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Flat Ontology

  1. To the best of my knowledge, DeLanda didn’t coin the term ‘flat ontology.’ It appears in Roy Bhaskar’s ‘Realist Philosophy of Science’ with more or less the same meaning except that he uses it as a pejorative term (his ontology is far from flat). DeLanda cites Bhaskar quite often so I dare say he probably picked it up from there. I suspect Bhaskar actually coined it though I don’t know for sure.

    An interesting post, however. I look forward to reading more of the same!

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for the response and the Bhaskar reference. I’ll definitely pursue that – it’s a while since I read Bhaskar’s work and I’d be interested to know whether he has any specific objections to the workability of flat ontologies.

  3. Glad to help!

    For Bhaskar a ‘flat ontology’ is guilty of what he calls ‘actualism.’ His ontology is premised upon a three level distinction between the real, the actual and the phenomenal. His realism is ‘critical’ because it involves delving down beneath the phenomenal and the actual to find the real bedrock underneath it all — the real being more valuable than its epiphenomenal offspring. He doesn’t like actualism because this would prohibit his critical ‘unveiling’ operation. This is why Bruno Latour’s ontology is ‘flat’ — he has nothing but animosity for this critical tradition stemming from Kant. DeLanda doesn’t share that attitude explicitly and he does allow for a real non-actual (i.e. virtual) dimension so his ontology isn’t as ‘flat’ as Latour’s but still much less than Bhaskar’s.

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