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The Philosophy of Scale: Levels, Layers, and Abstract Domains

Lecturer: Geoff Hondroudakis

Originally Taught: Summer School 2022

Questions of scale, have, in recent years, emerged as central vectors for philosophy, manifesting across epistemological and ontological lines as questions of levels, layers, and the demarcation of abstract domains. Contemporary situations—from climate change, the planetarisation of capital, and the miniaturization/infrastructuralisation of computation—have prompted philosophers to consider anew how things inhere in levels and layers, substrates and strata. Accordingly, thinkers across philosophy of science and technology, new materialisms and speculative realisms attempt to address, in their own ways, how different temporal, spatial, and conceptual scales reorient thinking and being. This course aims to trace the history and current state of philosophical thinking of the concept of scale in order to shed light on contemporary debates surrounding abstraction, materialism, complexity, and structure.

Session 1: Prolegomena to a Philosophy of scale

In the first session, we will introduce the concept of scale, and address how and why scale has come to be particularly relevant now. The philosophical stakes of scale are expressed in three primary areas of concern: computation, climate change, and capitalism. In each of these domains, philosophers come to be concerned with the levels and layers, abstract forms and concrete particulars that form the architectures of complex systems. Scalar questions in these areas branch out into larger questions regarding culture, representation, cognition, the philosophy of science, and abstraction’s relationship to the material. Across these fields of thought, scale functions as a means of both binding and splitting, producing cuts and bridging divides between areas of relative commensurability and incommensurability. These prolegomena will set up the inquiries of the subsequent sessions, establishing the terrain in which scale becomes a significant and contested concept for philosophy.

Required Reading:

  • Timothy Clark, “Scale,” in Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Volume 1, ed. Tom Cohen (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012), 148–66.

Recommended Reading:

  • Zachary Horton. “Scale Theory,” in The Cosmic Zoom: Scale, Knowledge, and Mediation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 1-36.
  • Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales,” Common Knowledge 18, no. 3 (2012): 505–24.
  • Bernard Stiegler, “Foreword,” in On the Existence of Digital Objects, trans. Daniel Ross (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), vii–xiii.

Session 2: History of the Philosophy of Scale

Session two will provide an overview of the long history of scalar thinking, tracing classical origins in Platonist and Aristotelian traditions, through the Copernican turn and the changes in philosophical approaches to scale with the development of modern science and philosophy. This is, necessarily, something of a retroactive reading of a concept onto history, but one that can productively trace certain historical debates, disagreements, and commonalities useful for interpreting the present state of philosophical affairs. This schematic history, then, produces some ways for reading the concepts of the history of philosophy in light of a present conceptual debate, in a way that should shed some light in both temporal directions.

Required Reading:

  • John Tresch, “Cosmopragmatics and Petabytes,” in Aesthetics of Universal Knowledge, ed. Simon Schaffer, John Tresch, and Pasquale Gagliardi (Fondazione Giorgio Cini onlus, 2017), 137–68.

Recommended Reading:

  • Yuk Hui, “Form and Relation: Materialism on an Uncanny Stage,” Intellectica 61, no. 1 (2014): 105–21, https://doi.org/10.3406/intel.2014.1040.
  • Gaston Bachelard, “Noumena and Microphysics,” trans. David Reggio, Angelaki - Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 10, no. 2 (2005): 73–78.
  • Michael Tavel Clarke and David Wittenberg, “Introduction,” in Scale in Literature and Culture, ed. Michael Tavel Clarke and David Wittenberg (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 1–34.

Session 3: Disciplinary Concepts of Scale

A large part of the impetus for philosophy to need to think scale today is that is has emerged as a crucial question in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. While philosophy has, historically, produced many ways of engaging with scale, its primary orientation has often been to occlude it except as a contingent supplement to more trans-scalar truths. However, the last century has seen different disciplinary knowledges produce their own, often highly specialised, accounts of scale, addressing the particular concerns of their respective fields. This session will examine some of the different local formulations of scale found in different disciplines across the sciences and humanities, including physics, geography, ecology, engineering, computing, and media studies. Seeing how the proliferation of disciplinary knowledges produce and relate to scale in turn will serve as a means for addressing how these are incorporated or excluded by their philosophical correlates.

Required Reading:

  • Mark Wilson, “The Greediness of Scales,” in Physics Avoidance: Essays in Conceptual Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 201-240

Recommended Reading:

  •  Zachary Horton, “The Trans-Scalar Challenge of Ecology,” ISLE Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 26, no. 1 (2019): 5–26.
  • Andrew Herod, “Preface”, in Scale (New York: Routledge, 2011), xi-xvii.
  • Benjamin H. Bratton, “Introduction,” in The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015), 3-17.

Session 4: Contemporary Philosophers of Scale:

In the contemporary landscape of philosophy and theory, there is a division between positions that aim to produce rigorous and systematic theories of scales, levels, and layers in abstract structures, and proponents of ‘flat’ ontological thinking, where the concept of scale is explicitly denounced in favour of radically horizontal forms of thought. This session returns us to the landscape of contemporary philosophy, examining some of the ways that philosophers have attempted to think the question of scale today. For some, this takes the form of an explicit orientation around scale, while for others the concept is given different names: from hierarchies, to cosmologies, levels and layers of abstraction or organization. By analysing and comparing these thinkers’ disparate attempts to address scalar concerns, we will be able to identify some common features of the concept and its philosophical functions.

Required Reading:

  • Zachary Horton, “Scale and Difference: Towards a New Ecology,” in The Cosmic Zoom: Scale, Knowledge, and Mediation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 137-170.

Recommended Reading:

  • William C. Wimsatt, “The Ontology of Complex Systems: Levels of Organization, Perspectives, and Causal Thickets,” in Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations of Reality (London: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  • Luciano Floridi, “The Method of Levels of Abstraction,” in The Philosophy of Information (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 46-78.
  • Bruno Latour, “Anti-Zoom,” in Scale in Literature and Culture, ed. Michael Tavel Clarke and David Wittenberg (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 93–101.

Session 5: Implications and Issues:

In light of these accounts of scale we studied throughout the course, we will now re-examine questions of planetary computation, climate change, and scalar politics. In the final session, we will relate the philosophical landscape of scalar thinking back to these matters of concern, mapping them onto the philosophical terrain. Ontological and epistemological accounts of scale both emerge from and respond to the pragmatics of our social, technological, and political situations. This will entail linking these concerns into current debates between different materialisms, and the thinking of abstraction and structure as the pragmatics of how to orient interscalar action. Finally, we will discuss some of the open questions in thinking scale today, and the potential vectors for its future study in philosophy.

Required Reading:

Recommended Reading:

  • Alberto Toscano, “The Culture of Abstraction,” Theory, Culture & Society 25, no. 4 (2008): 57–75.
  • Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “Some Problems with Scale,” in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015), 37-52.
  • Tiziana Terranova, “Red Stack Attack,” in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, ed. Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian (Urbanomic,