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
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.