This is a short excerpt on the philosophy of movement from a recent interview I did with Nico Buitendag for Undisciplined Podcast.
Nico Buitendag: When we first begin to look at the world through motion, what are some of the first things that were previously obscured that suddenly—at least then for you when you started this project—what were some of the things that quickly sprang up for the first time that became very obvious to you that you didn’t expect?
Thomas Nail: To qualify very quickly: It’s not like nobody’s ever talked about motion. Everybody has talked about motion. There’s not a philosopher or theorist, or anybody who hasn’t said something about motion. The difference is whether motion is ontologically primary, whether that’s the starting point of analysis or whether that’s a secondary, or derivative feature. In my view, almost everybody in the history of Western thought at least has treated motion as a secondary thing: something that happens to what is already primary, some substance, or eternal form, or vital force, or temporal a priori or whatever.
But to answer your question, some of the first things that I found to be very shocking when I started looking at this was that: 1) Movement was a subordinated term, but also movement was actually the primary ordering structure of things. Matter is moving around, and that all these other things get built on top of it. And so the interesting question to me—which it’s taken me a lot of years trying to get the answer to it—is if being really is in motion, then how could we have missed this for so long?
What are the techniques and tools…how do we perpetuate other perspectives that cover over that movement? What are the techniques of explanation that obscure the movement of matter and convince us that it’s not actually important or primary? And that has all kinds of answers in aesthetics, in politics, in ontology, and so on.
One of the answers, with respect to ontology, actually has to do with the material techniques of doing ontology, of writing. We don’t know what anybody thought. We always say “so and so thought this,” “so and so thought that,” but we don’t have access to anybody’s thoughts. What we have access to are the residues of historical practices, material cultures, and writings and texts, and all kinds of stuff, but we don’t actually have access to the thoughts of dead people, of what people have thought in history.
So the challenge, at least in Being and Motion, was to go back and say “what are the material techniques?” For example writing, books, printing press, typewriters—what are the material techniques, and what’s their structure of motion? What is the form of motion that covers over the fact that they’re using a material motion in order to generate some thought of the ideal, of the abstract, of the universal, of time, of space? What are they really doing? So there’s a kind of media archaeology that goes along with that from a materialist perspective.
And the second thing I saw, and this is maybe the major thing I found I suppose, are these patterns. Kinetic systems are systems of motion, patterns of motion. These are centripetal, centrifugal, tensional, and elastic. These are major patterns of motion in physics. Obviously, there are subtypes, combinations, and hybrids, but these are the four kinds of patterns that are going on in each of these different historical periods, and these patterns take on a kind of dominance in each period. All of them are always happening, but in some time periods, one of them really takes hold and becomes a guiding structure, and that happens across disciplines. It doesn’t have to do with just politics or ontology, it’s historical. It’s really the way that matter moved and circulated in a given time. So to me, those four types of motion were really important discoveries, and I’m very curious to see how people will respond to those. It’s an empirical kind of argument so I’m open to being wrong about those patterns, but it was quite a discovery.