Withdrawal: Ancient and Modern Accounts

Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology has been in discussion with Michael at Archive Fire regarding the varieties of withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy. Below I’ve pasted my comment in response to Adam’s post:

I’ve just read Michael’s piece, and I agree with your assessment of the shortcomings of materialism. Materialism, as you’ve defined it (following Whitehead), only acknowledges the settled past of the universe, ignoring the ongoing process of evolution into the future. What is matter, anyways? Is it quarks? Is it atoms? Is it stars, cells, or animals? In one sense, it is all of these things, each of which has emerged at a certain point in a still ongoing irreversible evolutionary process. In another sense, it is none of these things, since materiality in general must be the creative process underlying the emergence of each of these specific forms. As such, we can never finally know what matter “is,” since it is impossible to predict what specific forms it will take in the future. Nonetheless, matter certainly is something. Perhaps it is this “something”–let’s call it the creativity of matter–that withdraws from every attempt to finally know it. Granted, this is a notion of withdrawal unlike Harman’s, since it points to something general underlying the appearance of any object, rather than something essential to an individual object.

I disagree with Michael’s account, specifically when he uses the example of digestion. When I eat an apple, the apple itself is not what interests my stomach. What interests my stomach are the nutrients necessary to maintain my body’s metabolism. Everything else that went into the apple is discarded as waste. And this is just the physical level; on the psychical level, the sweetness of the apple is only relevant to my tongue, the redness of it only relevant to my eyes, the smoothness to my skin, etc. These qualities are not “touched” by my stomach or the process of digestion. They are withdrawn from it. This is much like Harman’s favorite example of fire not burning cotton. It is a really compelling example of the meaning of withdrawal in the case of particular entities.

I remember when I first started reading Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics I was seeing Plato’s notion of forms everywhere. I’ll have to go back and do my homework to substantiate this, but it does seem to me that the eternal “form” of an apple is something like what Harman means by its withdrawn substance. Plato thought we had more than aesthesis when it comes to building up knowledge of a thing; which is to say that, though we cannot know the real apple using our senses, we can intuit its essence using the higher faculties of the soul. The soul, as Aristotle said, is potentially all things. So though the essence of the apple withdraws from our senses, we still know it intuitively by becoming it, by psychically participating in its form. This is how the pre-Kantian ancients would have thought of it, anyway.