Review: Harman and DeLanda

Two more books, one (2002) by Graham Harman is I think an early statement of his full system. There are things missing here (dormant and symbiotic objects for example) but the core of it, that Heiddeger’s tool/broken-tool distinction is a foundation for a full fledged ontology, and that what is both real and mind-independent has, nevertheless, a being or essence (haeccity is an old word for it from the scholars of the middle ages, but it fits) that is both ontologically real and unreachable (withdrawing) from any relation. The second review is of a recent collaboration between Harman and Manuel DeLanda. I have not read DeLanda otherwise. His thoughts about ontology are not systematically clear for me. Harman’s would not be either if I had only this book to go by. Instead what we get is terminological refinements of one another’s thoughts (each compared to the other) in five broad ontological subjects.

It seems to me that as concerns the most ontologically fundamental nature of being Harman and Delanda have a very fundamental disagreement. The haeccity that withdraws from us (Harman) is summed up (for DeLanda) in the object’s world-line, the exact details of its entire history. I get the impression that DeLanda is saying that if we had immediate experiential knowledge of every detail at all levels of graining expressed in all (even possible) linguistic systems, we would know that object. He concedes that such knowledge is in principle impossible and so what constitutes being cannot ever be fully touch it. Harman agrees that the world-line is real (an object), but insists that even the entirety of its history does not exhaust it. The two positions come out, in the end, to the same thing as concerns our experience of what is real. We cannot ever reach the core of things. In this sense, Harman is a little more realist in the sense that he adds a little more to what is mind-independent, but his addition seems arbitrary, utterly speculative. He never quite explains what difference it makes. DeLanda also doesn’t know for sure if being is encompassed by a world-line, but he argues that it goes at least that far, something on which both authors agree.

Both of these authors, along with Meillassoux are called “speculative realists”. The moniker is well deserved. Coming from a continental anti-realist position both remain trapped behind the anti-realist boundary between thought and mind-independent reality. But even anti-realists (apart from pure idealists who became extinct over a century ago) believe that there is a mind-independent world though nothing can be known for certain about it. In becoming “realists” all three are attempting to formulate a view of what can be said about that world, but they still accept that what might be said cannot be known with certainty. Thus it is they are *speculating!*

Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Kindle Edition 2002)

I suspect Tool-Being was Harman’s first attempt to reveal his developed ontology to the world. The book, written in 2002, is now a bit dated as Harman has updated his ontology with a few modifications (additions and subtractions) in later books, but those are still only adjustments around the edges. The basic ideas are all still here. What I do not see, again, is any development of his conclusions from first principles, but his ontology does not simply spring fully formed into his head. Rather than first principles it appears to have been a patchwork of inspiration taken from the ideas of Heidegger, Whitehead, Latour, and others. If anything Tool-Being provides us with this historical foundation of Harman’s thought.

So what we get here in this book is first a review of Heidegger’s theory of tools and broken tools which forms the fundamental insight that Harman extends to everything, not just tools, in the universe. Next he looks into various interpretations of Heidegger and shows how they can be extended to be about more, and different, than Heidegger himself had in mind. Lastly, we have the explication of his own insights derived from the foregoing. All of this until the last 7 or 8 pages of the book is illustrated by reference to other philosophers, in the last chapter mostly Levinas and Zubri. Finally, at the end Harman states his conclusions and several problems (paradoxes and regresses) stemming from them. He recognizes that these issues must be worked through (presumably by him and others) to fully flesh out the ontology, but he declines to do this here claiming for this book only a pointer to the way forward.

There is a good reason why Harman is grouped with a few others among the new generation of “speculative realists”. Given their continental anti-realist roots (Meillassoux being the only other of this group I’ve reviewed) they accept that perception alone (naive realism) doesn’t give us reality, and that, in the end, we can’t do philosophy (or anything else) from outside the mind. What they have in common is the conviction that from within mind, we can say something reasonable about the layout of a reality that includes both mind and something outside it. But they also know that what might well be reasonable and even useful for other areas of philosophy and the human-sciences cannot be known to be true. At best, as concerns ontology, these ideas of Harman (and Meillassoux and others) are speculations. They are not inductive conclusions based on evidence, but speculative possibilities. Harman is at least aware that the summing up of his particular speculations, up through the development of his thought to this point, leaves many questions to be resolved. He finishes convinced that, as a beginning, the fleshed out [future] system will be useful to someone. I have to wonder if he doesn’t come across a bit too convinced given the historical foundations of his ideas, but he does make a good effort in the last pages to explain his views particularly as they contrast with those of Heidegger and Whitehead.

I gave the book 4 stars because even if one is not a fan of Harman, the book is a superb explication of Heidegger and others as concerns possible implications of their metaphysics, epistemology, and phenomenology to the nature of the mind independent world.

The Rise of Realism (Kindle Edition 2017)

This little book consists of a dialog between Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman, two of a small suite of continental philosophers who today are trying to reclaim realism from the self-referential swamp of anti-realism having its beginnings in Kant. The book is divided into five broad subjects (chapters): Realism and Materialism; Realism and Anti-Realism; Realist Ontology; Cognition and Experience; Time, Space, and Science. In each chapter DeLanda and Harman conduct a conversation covering various sub-topics within the overall category.

One gets the impression of a couple of philosophy graduate students chatting over beers in a local pub. Of course Harman and DeLanda are a bit more disciplined than graduate students, but not by a lot. The conversation tends to drift from sub-topic to sub-topic. As each side of the conversation approaches more technical or nuanced issues over which they might disagree more than being a “matter of terminology”, each changes the subject so as to move on. Nothing is explored in any depth. In part this is understandable. I suppose neither wanted to write a thousand page book. But neither party actually explains the derivation of their particular “system of thought”, merely stating it as it relates to whatever particular subject is at hand. Harman mildly contradicts himself here and there as one broad subject (chapter) moves on to the next, and overall DeLanda’s position seems to me to be the more common-sensical but both have their problems.

Meanwhile, the two rarely disagree and when they approach disagreement they tend to change the subject. Only in the last chapter is there any substantive disagreement discussed. Overall if you are looking for some overview of both philosopher’s thoughts on these broad issues this book is a good summary. As a means of using one another’s thought to adjust their own positions it falls flat. Neither author’s position changes in the slightest except where they can agree that their positions on some particular sub-issue can be brought closer together by terminological adjustments. Not a bad book and a good review of each author’s already mature thought. But it isn’t great either. Nothing new is accomplished. For $18 (Kindle edition) this book is probably more expensive than it should be.

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