Thomas Nail, Being and Motion
Thomas Nail, Being and Motion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018; 544 pages. ISBN: 978-0190908911.
Reviewed by Michael J. Bennett, University of King’s College.
Thomas Nail’s ambitious philosophical project starts with the diagnosis that today we live in the “Age of Motion.” Politics, aesthetics and science have entered a “whole new kinetic paradigm,” (5) and this is true even of ontology, however reluctant ontologists are to accept it.
Though its scope is staggering, this book is yet a part of a larger whole. Nail proposes to treat the other topics in separate books, some of which remain unpublished, even as Being and Motion references them frequently. In Being and Motion, Nail aims to accomplish two things. His first task is to produce a timely “conceptual and ontological framework for describing the being of motion,” upon which the companion volumes can draw, thus also providing a “unique insight into a certain hidden or occluded dimension of Western ontology.” (11) Philosophers have rarely endorsed the ontological “primacy of motion,” Nail observes, and have usually subordinated it to a more fundamental principle. Three historical exceptions—Lucretius, Marx, and Bergson—who take motion as seriously as Nail does, receive brief treatment (32–35), and fuller analyses are promised elsewhere. But because Nail portrays Being and Motionas providing insight into what has hitherto been obscured behind other “names of being,” his book makes a critical intervention today. Contemporary philosophers who fail to appreciate the primacy of motion must be out of step with the times, actively participating in the suppression of this dimension of ontology, or oblivious to the real material-kinetic presuppositions of their practice (144). These are the errors that Nail scrupulously avoids.
The second task of Being and Motion is to “turn this kinetic perspective back on the practice of ontology itself.” Nail’s theory of motion is not “fundamental” ontology, he says, but “historical.” (19) It advances a “minimal” (but still “transcendental”) claim about the history of past being, about what “previous reality” must have been like in order to produce our present. Thus it makes no assertions about the future and even leaves open the possibility that other names of being will eclipse “motion.” Moreover, in addition to examining historical descriptions of being—primarily, but not exclusively, texts from the history of Western philosophy—with a view to redescribing them in kinetic terms, Nail also pays meticulous attention to the types of inscription or graphism that materially condition the content of those descriptions: speech, writing, the codex, and the keyboard.
Nail’s thesis is that in four distinct periods of Western history, both ontological description and inscription followed the same “regime of motion.” That is, they described and inscribed a real “pattern of being’s motion,” which existed at the time (24) and made it possible for being to appear as something other than what it is—other than motion. This is not to say that historical ontologists were simply wrong to name being “space,” “eternity,” “force,” or “time.” “Reality actually moved differently in each period” (139), and this is what such descriptions referred to. In the Neolithic period (10000–5000 BCE), a centripetal pattern of motion dominated, while in the Ancient world (5000 BCE–500 CE), it was a centrifugal pattern. The long Middle Ages, including the Early Modern period (500–1800 CE), were characterized by a “tensional” regime of motion, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, motion became increasingly “elastic.” These kinetic patterns organize Being and Motion itself, particularly the second half, and demonstrating their existence and dominance in their respective historical eras lies at the heart of the project.
One of the challenges inherent in Nail’s project arises from his reasoned commitment to describing the patterns without explaining them. Nail rejects the pretense of causal explanation involved in both “idealist” reductionism, according to which inscriptions about being are completely explained by the thoughts they contain, and its obverse, which makes ontological descriptions the simple products of “technological, material, or media” conditions. (20–21) Since talking about “causes” is always a non-explanatory “short-cut” for longer accounts of matter in motion (103), Nail prefers terms like “coordination, or synchronization” (21), “historical coemergence and constant conjunction” (23), and “kinetic resonance” (140) to capture the relation between description and inscription. And though he does not explain it, Nail increases the scope of this “resonance” with dominant patterns of motion: it also characterizes the relations between ontology, politics, aesthetics, and science. (140)
Despite the centrality of kinetic forms or “patterns” to his argument, Nail classifies the ontology of motion as a kind of materialism. He defines his “process materialism” in contrast to what Marx called the “crude materialism” of the empiricists and the “contemplative materialism” of the idealists, which makes of matter a “concept or logical category.” (47–8) To avoid that misstep, Nail aims to ensure that the term remains as undefined as possible: “Matter is the historical name for what is in motion, but what matter is is in process and thus must remain ontologically indeterminate.” (46) Again, instead of explaining, Nail prefers to describe: “The best way to describe what it is is by what it does, or how it moves.” (49) To this end, he devotes the rest of Book I: The Ontology of Motion.
This theory of motion constitutes the “kinetic deduction” Nail promised of historical being’s minimal features and a kinetic redescription of inherited ontological concepts. For example, Nail calls the intersection of a continuous flow with itself a “fold” (83). The cycle or periodic motion that follows from folding makes it possible for motion to achieve a state of relative stability that Nail uses to conceptualize identity, unity, existence, necessity, sensation, quality, quantity, and thinghood. (85–99)
The dominant “patterns of motion” that characterize the history of ontology and give rise to being’s main names are not folds but “fields.” The difference is that a field does not intersect with itself, yet “binds together and organizes a regional distribution of flows.” (109) One question this raises is how a field does so, if indeed it doesn’t move the way a fold does—that is, if it has no period, cycle, and so on, and by extension no identity, qualities or thinghood of its own. Nail might deny that fields explain the folds they organize and resist answering such a “how” question, but even so, the concept of the kinetic field is less well-developed than that of the fold—which is a shame, considering how important a role fields play in the historical analyses of Book II.
Book II: The Motion of Ontology is by some margin the longer section of Being and Motion. It is divided into four subsections, each devoted to a period of ontological history and that period’s associated concept of being. Each of these parts is, in turn, subdivided into three “resonating” analyses—of the dominant pattern of motion (kinos), the content of ontological descriptions (logos), and the ways in which ontology was inscribed (graphos). Book II is the product of massive synthetic ambition, and Nail brings together an impressive amount of material under his conceptual framework. In this review, I cannot do justice to it all, so I neglect his intriguing discussions of inscription entirely, as well the prehistoric centripetal and ancient centrifugal periods, in order to focus on what he says about modern European philosophy.
Probably the most unusual feature of Nail’s history of Western ontology is the length of the period he calls “medieval,” dominated by the “tensional” pattern of motion. It spans from about the traditional date of the fall of Rome to the publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Although this regime remains dominant well into scientific modernity, it originates, Nail says, as a response to the kinetic problems introduced by the transcendence of God at the centre of the prior, centrifugal regime. (274–75) Such problems are particularly acute in the Christian traditions because of the necessity of accounting for the incarnation, as a result of which God is both an absolutely separate creator and a particular human being. (320–21) Thus Nail defines “tensional” motion as involving at least two fields, connected by a mediating flow or “rigid link [that] keeps them both together and apart.” (274) Medieval theologians, philosophers and scientists theorize the link between God and created nature in various ways—for example, in terms of the Trinity, aether, impetus, and conatus—but Nail perceives an underlying continuity, because being tends to be defined predominantly as transferable force. In this context, Spinoza develops the regime’s timeliest ontological description with his unapologetic ontology of power. (314)
The transition from the tensional regime and the ontology of force to its successor, Nail continues, occurs “in the face of a brutal empiricist critique” (368)—namely, the critique of metaphysics inaugurated by Berkeley and Hume. (318–19; 280–81) One recognizes the conventional story Kant himself tells of being awoken from dogmatic slumbers, which inaugurates a philosophical revolution. Nail identifies post-Kantian phenomenology as the dominant form of modern ontology and “elastic” motion as the regime it kinetically presupposes. “Elasticity” here describes a field in which between any two ordered folds, there is an indefinite number of subfolds. (370; 373) The field can thus expand and contract in a way that has been described predominantly in terms of temporality and subjectivity—for example, the retention of the past, the anticipation of the future, and the expansiveness of the lived present. Nail interprets Kant’s transcendental subject as an elastic circulation conditioning all appearances whose form of inner sense is time, and he makes Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida the regime’s other descriptive touchstones, since they each elaborate on the association between temporality and subjectivity, consciousness, or being-there.
With the claim that modern phenomenology and the ontology of time become “dominant” in the recent past, Nail must face up to a structural or methodological challenge. He admits that fields of motion not only change over the course of history but become increasingly hybrid or mixed as they approach the present. (26; 453 n.14) The attempt to isolate the dominant patterns or to consider patterns separately must therefore become progressively less adequate to the reality of the fields themselves.
Nail’s core argument climaxes with the suggestion that the phenomenology of time has brought ontology to a tipping-point. He concedes that it closely resembles the view he advocates, as “the whole of being seems to be caught up in a more primary flux or flow of time,” but in another sense ontological elasticity “could not be more different from the real flux and continuum of motion.” (369) That’s because “the structure of time presupposes that being is primordially divided, intervalic [sic], fragmentary, and thus static.” (420) It is divided into three tenses: past, present, and future (367), and, finally, into the differences or “intervals” that Derrida shows to be the condition for the givenness of time. (416–17) In other words, the flow (of time) is not a continuous flow at all. Since the most contemporary ontologies are so close yet so far from a truly kinetic one, Nail aims to seize the moment, come down on one side of the issue, and tip the balance away from the legacy of phenomenology one finds in Heidegger, Derrida, and their acolytes (420)—but also in Deleuze.
Deleuze and the Deleuzians appear prominently in Being and Motion as “related contenders” to Nail’s process materialism and ontology of motion (32) and as the clearest targets of his criticism, the thrust of which is that their descriptions of being are ontological throwbacks, out of step with the times. According to Nail, Deleuze not only (like Derrida), “models his theory of difference [in Difference and Repetition] on time, following the phenomenological tradition” (419), but he is also a neo-Spinozist ontologist of force. (43; 37–38; 48–49) In other words, Deleuze’s descriptions of being presuppose either the elastic regime of motion, which Nail encourages us to move beyond, or the tensional regime that has not been dominant for centuries. Deleuze’s claims are “historically limited in certain ways [he] could not see beyond.” (41)
Nail also attributes to Deleuze—in contrast to his own kinetic materialist monism—an “inclusive and pluralistic ontology in which all the great names for being are said equally and univocally of the same being,” identified with becoming or differential process. (36) From this perspective, Nail’s complaint is that Deleuze failed to live up to his promise of pluralism and inclusiveness by treating some of the supposedly equal names of being (like “force”) as more equal than others. (37–38) Still, if the present-day fields of motion, by Nail’s own admission, are the most complex and hybrid, then perhaps a consistent pluralism that undertakes to be equally so would also be a candidate for the ontology of the present.
Being and Motion is a singular achievement, but it ends by recognizing its limitations. The need to isolate dominant patterns in hybrid flows, for example, represents the “mixological” limitation of the work. Nail also acknowledges its “geographical narrowness” as the price to be paid for “historical breadth” (445), and he looks forward to future research expanding the kinetic analysis to non-Western and colonized contexts, where motion may be differently periodized and resonate in other patterns. (446–47) Nail’s compelling book might indeed move others to build on its groundwork or, equally, provoke vigorous debate. It is a substantial contribution to contemporary philosophy, which I expect to make a wide-ranging impact.