From the back-cover: » On the Origin of Objects is the culmination of Brian Cantwell Smith’s decade-long investigation into the philosophical and metaphysical foundations of computation, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science. Based on a sustained critique of the formal tradition that underlies the reigning views, he presents an argument for an embedded, participatory, ‘irreductionist,’ metaphysical alternative. Smith seeks nothing less than to revise our understanding not only of the machines we build but also of the world with which they interact.
Smith’s ambitious project begins as a search for a comprehensive theory of computation, able to do empirical justice to practice and conceptual justice to the computational theory of mind. A rigorous commitment to these two criteria ultimately leads him to recommend a radical overhaul of our traditional conception of metaphysics.
Along the way, Smith offers many fascinating ideas: the distinction between particularity and individuality, the methodological notion of an « inscription error, » an argument that there are no individuals within physics, various deconstructions of the type-instance distinction, an analysis of formality as overly disconnected (« discreteness run amok »), a conception of the boundaries of objects as properties of unruly interactions between objects and subjects, an argument for the theoretical centrality of reference preservation, and a theatrical, acrobatic metaphor for the contortions involved in the preservation of reference and resultant stabilization of objects. Sidebars and diagrams throughout the book help clarify and guide Smith’s highly original and compelling argument. » (A Bradford Book. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996).
From the Preface: « This is a book about metaphysics-one that attempts to do justice to the tundra, to gardening, to politics, to rock. As indicated, my path into these subjects has come through computer science, but that is mostly by the way. Although some technical material is reviewed in chapter i, computational considerations are largely set aside, in order to tell a tale about the territory into which that long exploration has led. The result is something of a metaphysical romp-occasionally riding rough-shod over turf already well explored (and well tilled) by generations of writers: from philosophy, feminism, theology, science studies, physics, poetry. Notwithstanding the germ of truth in the remark that « progress is made by stepping on the toes of giants, » links with these literatures need to, and at some later point will, be forged. Nevertheless, my aim for the present text is simple: by presenting the story stripped of its computational heritage, to open up a conversation about perspectives, requirements, insights, and struggles-a conversation with others who have been led, via different routes, to this same metaphysical terrain.
To those inspired to take the trip-whether from explicit professional wrestling with such issues, or as the result of late night reservations about how to participate authentically in academic life-I hope to say two things. First: yes, it is possible to base uncompromising theoretical inquiry on alternative foundations: messier foundations, contested foundations, foundations that run closer to the wry and weathered texture of ordinary life. No one, least of all God, has decreed that intellectual rigor must (or even can) be founded on a pristine foundational atomism. Second, though, I also want to make evident just how much such a transformation costs. Politics, creativity, ambiguity, irreverence-none of these can be grafted, at a later stage, onto a silent steel core, or even poured, like life-giving water, over inherently desiccated foundations. The whole story has to be turned upside down. » p. IX-X.