On the Origin of Objects
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.
Everything that exists—objects, properties, life, practice—lies Smith claims in the "middle distance," an intermediate realm of partial engagement with and partial separation from, the enveloping world. Patterns of separation and engagement are taken to underlie a single notion unifying representation and ontology: that of subjects' "registration" of the world around them.
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
“Seldom do I see manuscripts that provide a radically new framework which promises to solve or to reframe many of the classical problems in computation, formal semantics, ontology, as well as epistomology. His notion of partial connectedness provides a fundamental way around the uncomputable problem of reference and in fact recasts much of analytic philosophy. My delight in this book, however, has little to do with philosophy, but more to do with how this framework helps us re-examine certain issues in the connectionist paradigm and neuroscience.”
—John Seely Brown, Vice President for Research, Xerox PARC Palo Alto Research Center
“A bold and deeply original attempt to ground the meaning of objectivity in our material and social participation in the world.”
—Evelyn Fox Keller, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, MIT
“Like the work of Simon, Chomsky, Kuhn, and Foucault, Brian Smith's On the Origin of Objects comes into philosophy from the outside, and stands to shake things up. This is an essay in fundamental metaphysics, but not like any we've ever seen before. Bringing to ontology the training of a computer scientist, and the sensibilities of an artist-engineer, Smith recreates our understanding of objects essentially from scratch -- and changes, I think, everything.”
—John Haugeland, Professor of Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh
“This book develops a highly original and important account of representation and ontology that is interdisciplinary amongst computer science, philosophy and cognitive science. Work on the theory of representation has been fundamental within these disciplines, but representational practice has outstripped theory. Brian Smith argues against a formalist conception in favor of an account which explains how objects are 'registered.'”
—Adrian Cussins, University of California