Inspired by a Discussion With Ethan Nelson at Becoming Conscious, “Beauty As Antidote to the Meaning Crisis”

Objectifying Objects

Does the way we treat objects train us in how we treat ourselves?

Photo by Billy Huynh

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ethan Nelson at “Becoming Conscious,” with whom I was very impressed. His insights, direction, and contributions were all marvelous. The discussion is titled “Beauty as Antidote to the Meaning Crisis” and can be found at his Substack:

A few points that came up:

1. If I lived in a world where I wouldn’t be allowed to use a laptop until I rationally explained it, I would likely be unemployed. Similarly, if I wasn’t allowed to “be human” until I could rationally explain “being human,” then there would probably never be a human which I could try to explain.

2. We mostly live according to “sufficient reason” versus “complete reason,” but our brains are extremely talented at convincing us that we are completely reasonable in our “sufficient reason” (and at avoiding “high order” experiences which would force us to acknowledge otherwise). How humbling if we didn’t…

3. We can only ever share words about experiences, which means we never share experiences.

4. Our brains naturally interpret their thoughts as “rational,” making it seem as if “nonrationality” plays no role at all.

5. We never see what we never create, and so we never seem to be missing out…

6. We are always creating out of an infinity nothing can ever be.

7. We can claim, “We don’t have free will,” precisely because we don’t have “total will,” and because freedom makes us feel anxious (which doesn’t feel like freedom…).

8. Tribalism is the logical outcome of a rationality which conflates “rational” and “true,” which makes no space for aesthetics and art.

Mr. Nelson, in his great kindness and productivity, put together this amazing document of notes from the discussion, which I highly suggest:

Our conversation is also elaborated on in “The Blank Canvas” by O.G. Rose.

Part 1
Part 2

In this short work, I wanted to focus on a point that came up toward the very start of the conversation on how objects cannot stop us from objectifying them. It was said that if I treated my friend Sarah like she was just her arm, Sarah would get upset and let me know that I was mistreating her. And yet if I looked at a sunset and said, “It’s just clouds,” the sunset wouldn’t say anything back. It would keep being itself, as if I didn’t say anything at all, and yet in its stillness and silence I would have transformed it into “its parts.” And precisely because the sunset did not resist my statement, it might be suggested that I am right. In that silence, the people nearby who overhead me may think that I’m intelligent, and socially I may receive praise and agreement. My world may have lost something, and yet I will feel wise.

Audio Summary

If I treat my friend Alex as if he is “merely” his job, or if I treat my neighbor like she is primarily defined by a car accident which happened a year ago, both of these would constitute examples of “reducing” people to something far less than what they are in their fullness. This would be reductionistic. Similarly, if Bob’s hand was sliced off in a terrible accident (sorry for the gruesome example), and I were to act like the hand was Bob (that the rest of Bob was “not his real self”), Bob would likely never talk to me again. This would be objectifying, for now that Bob’s hand isn’t attached to his body, it is not “(part of) him,” and so to treat Bob “as if” he was his hand would be to treat Bob “like he was an object.” So it would go the same way if I treated Bob like his hand was “his realest self” while it was still attached to his body — the thought and corresponding action would simply be ridiculous.

People and subjects won’t let us reduce and objective them without consequences, whether it be the loss of a relationship, history remembering us as a moral monster, or something else, but I can treat sunsets like they’re just clouds without facing any (clear) consequences. Likewise, I can treat the whole universe like it’s “ultimately nothing,” just atoms, just parts — and the universe will do nothing to stop me (in fact, nothing will happen, seeing to prove my point). And if I existed in a culture that associated “reductionism” with intelligence and insight, I could even gain social status by making this move. Again, precisely because the universe will do nothing to resist me by I “objectify” it, this could make it seem like I’ve made a wise and accurate judgment. After all, I’ve been subconsciously trained by people to believe I’d be resisted and opposed if I immorally “reduced” or “objectified.” Since nothing happens when I do such to things, surely I’ve done nothing wrong…

Throughout O.G. Rose, it has been noted that things are constantly changing and hardly “things” at all, that the “self” is a “lack” — isn’t all this “reductionist?” A fair concern, but “reductionism” necessitates a hierarchy: I have to say that “parts” are more real than “wholes,” or something of the sort. Where I say, “Everything is constantly changing and in constant flux” (a point reminiscent of Alexander Bard’s thinking), everything is treated equally, which is to say there is no hierarchy, and thus no reductionism. Personally, I’ve tried to stress how the dichotomy between “wholes and parts” basically needs to be deconstructed in favor of “concerts and parts,” which means things are like “the performance of Beethoven’s 9th,” per se. Would it make sense to say that Beethoven is just the musicians or just the sheet music? Not at all: the music which “emerges” out of the performance is arguably “the most real” experience of Beethoven, and yet the “parts” which make the performance possible (the musicians, the sheet music, the instruments, etc.) are utterly necessary. To say parts are “necessary” is not the same as christening them with “ontological superiority” as if things are just parts — not that things will stop us from making this mistake.

We generally know objectification and reductionism are bad when applied to people, but we quickly and thoughtlessly do it to objects all the time, deciding “wholes are just their parts” without a second thought. Perhaps a reason we do this is because it is impossible for us to focus on everything about a thing simultaneously: if I look at a bookcase, I can’t really think about the handles, the glass, the wood, the shelves, and so on all at once, just one at a time. To “take in” the whole of the bookcase, I have to engage more so in pure perception (as discussed in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose), but that means I’m not thinking about the bookcase, and thus the object is meaningless to me. To experience meaning, I must think, but thinking can only really focus on “parts,” not “wholes.”

Faced with this reality, there is perhaps a subconscious bias to want to believe that “parts are highest reality,” for otherwise we would have to accept that our thinking does not naturally access “the fullest actuality” of things. If ultimate reality and actuality is found in “parts,” and that is what thinking can access, then thinking can access “upmost actuality, but if there is something real about “wholes,” then that would mean there is something “real” which thinking cannot readily access. That is humbling and hard to take, and so perhaps it is “wish-fulfillment” of thinking to believe that “wholes are their parts.” For thinking to accept the ontology of “emergence” and “concerts,” thinking would have to be humbled, and that is not what thinking wants. Hence, it engages in reductionism and objectification to feel better about itself.

In conclusion, it’s easy to “objectify objects,” especially if we are culturally, naturally, and socially conditionally to do so, believing this is “what smart people do” or something similar. Why is this a problem? Well, it’s elaborated on in “Beauty as Antidote to the Meaning Crisis” with Mr. Nelson, but basically if we objectify reality, we strangely never really encounter objects (objectification effaces objects, paradoxically), which is to say that we can never take phenomenology or aesthetic experiences seriously. Once this occurs, we are trained to treat ourselves to not see anything special about humans, at which point it is probable we will fall into “a meaning crisis.” To escape it, we’ll need better training, but at this point we will have trained ourselves to not see new possibilities anywhere we look. Open eyes don’t always work.




For my Eric Nelson, please see his wonderful Substance and Podcast page, Becoming Conscious:




Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart.

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O.G. Rose

O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart.

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