Problems with Object Oriented Ontology

Graham Harman is a popular guy in philosophy circles these days. Sometimes associated with  Maruzio Ferraris, Manuel DeLanda, and Quentin Meillassoux as one of the “New Realists”, he is also, with DeLanda and Meillassoux, known as a “speculative realist”. Although this essay is mostly about Harman (I have written about Meillassoux and Ferraris elsewhere on the blog) I first try to provide some perspective on them as a group.

All four emerged (in their fundamental epistemology and ontology) from late 19th and early 20th century continental anti-realism with its own roots going back to Kant. All four accept that from our inescapable subjective viewpoint we cannot in the end simply assume that, as concerns the appearance of an external world, what we see is what we get, a view called “naive realism”. Even non-continental realist schools recognize this in theory. Some analytic realists agree there is a “representation problem” but discount that it blocks-out as much of the mind-independent world as anti-realists claim. This partly explains their drift in a scientistic direction. John Searle (“Seeing Things As They Are” 2015) by contrast defends naive realism (he calls it “direct realism”) by distinguishing between presentation (what the senses, especially vision and touch, deliver) and representation. Among other things presentations cannot be manipulated at will (connecting up with Ferraris’ concept of “unamendability”) while representations can be manipulated. I will have a review of Searle’s book soon, but for now back to the continentals.

Of the four philosophers named above, only Ferraris has shaken fully loose of the anti-realist cloud (see my article on anti-realism). Ferraris takes a position that what you see is close to what you get. The mind independent world is self-structured (stars, galaxies, primitive life) is all real and already jointed long before mind comes along to recognize and react to the joints. That mind does recognize and react to the joints is a phenomenon fully within the process of world-self-structuring. Mind is a means (not necessarily the only means) of mediating between sensory input (evolved) and behavioral response which partly directs the future of that organism and its community. Ferraris does not think that fish-mind, lion-mind, bird-mind, and human-mind, all mediate the joints in the same way. But the structure of all these forms of consciousness do reflect mind-independent joints, those the animal’s survival depends upon. The evidence for this is the way those world-structures push back at us as well as the manipulative potentials their regularity affords to mind. Ferraris’ ontology is fully real then.

Epistemologically speaking, mind is not merely guessing at what might be “out there”, but knows it at a graining suitable to its daily navigation about the world. Human mind knows the natural world from a far more sophisticated viewpoint yet remains analogous to the viewpoints of higher animals. But humans are in addition able to frame their own abstractions, additional joints, on top of the natural world making recursive use of the affordances (Ferraris’ term) given to us by the regularity of the resistance (we cannot change the past, running into a wall hurts, we cannot fly merely by wishing it), of the world. For Ferraris both the resistance and affordance are epistemological evidence that ontology is “more or less” what epistemology represents.

Meillassoux and Harman are different. I think DeLanda belongs in this group but I have read but little of DeLanda and must limit myself to points he makes in his jointly authored book (“The Rise of Realism” 2017) with Harman. Harman and Meillassoux have not shaken themselves free of the anti-realist fog. In the end, neither can accept that what seems real and jointed about the mind-independent world to consciousness very much likely is real and that the independent joints are close to where we perceive them to be! This is the reason this group are “speculative”, a fitting moniker. If we do not have a good reason to believe the mind-independent world approximates what it appears to be, then in the end the best that can be done by ontology is to speculate about it and hope the speculation serves to enhance insights in some other arena of philosophy or science.

Of the two Meillassoux (from his major work “After Finitude” [2010]) is the more careful analyst. He begins in essence with a traditional anti-realist assumption; the Principle of Sufficient Reason is not necessarily true of the mind-independent world. He concedes that it appears to hold and that it must indeed hold for long periods (essentially an anthropic argument) but in the end he concludes that it need not necessarily hold out beyond what we can perceive in space or in time. That’s fair enough. He starts with an assumption and traces it to a logical conclusion. I think he is wrong because his fundamental assumption is wrong (I’m a realist theologian after all) but I do not fault the quality and professionalism of his reasoning from assumption to conclusion. He reminds me, in style not content, of some modern analytic philosophers like Lowe (recently deceased), Chalmers, Searle, and Deacon among many others.

Harman does not seem (anywhere that I can find) to build his ontology he rather asks us to accept a purely speculative proposal in the hope that it will be useful. Like Ferraris, Harman believes the mind-independent world is already structured as concerns particulars, that is there are particulars along with various relations between them. But Harman asks us to accept for the sake of argument) that “the real” is made up of nothing but individual objects. Further, ‘object’ includes everything from atoms to asteroids, stars, events of all kinds, and thoughts. The last includes both subjective relations (that tree over there as I experience it) and fantasies (the pink elephant I see floating in front of me).

Objects must exist before they can have properties through which they have relations with other objects. Thus Harman introduces an essence or haecceity but it seems to do nothing except stand in for “that which has properties” and grounds its causal potential. The object’s properties, even the complete history and future of its properties (and relations into which they enter) down to the finest detail, does not exhaust the being of the object. This is one place where DeLanda diverges, but for Harman, something is deeper than the object’s complete history and it comes down to the object’s being or essence. Being in his context seems to be a placeholder for “that which must exist but cannot be known”!

From the moment an object exists it has properties that enter relations with other objects through their properties. These relations too are objects as real as their relata, and further, the properties are also objects with their own haecceity, further properties, and so relations. If this looks like the beginning of an infinite regress it is and Harman has no real answer for it. What he offers is the observation that objects do not persist indefinitely. Objects and relations can come and go, sometimes transform into new objects or cause there to become objects that until that time did not exist. But none of this avoids the regress problem. Even considered syncronically (at a point in time), every property and relation in the universe is itself an object related to every other relation and object in multiple ways. This is already a well-neigh infinite number of objects. Physicists estimate there are 10^80 protons in the universe. That makes the number of relations (all objects) between protons alone 10^80^80! But nowhere (in the four books I’ve read) does Harman make a case for the object-hood of properties. The sun is hot and my hallucinated elephant is pink, but hotness and pinkness are not objects in any normal uses of that word. Anything that can be bounded, anything whose joints can be delineated, is an object. But while my pink elephant can be bounded, its pinkness cannot in any way that Harman makes comprehensible. Harman has a problem with universals.

Harman sets this problem aside and moves on however. While all of these objects are equally real (ontology) they are not all “equally important”. Harman knows that importance can be importance to human mind or animal mind but he also suggests a possible mind-independent measure of importance in the form of a “symbiotic object”. Objects of all kinds come and go. Some never persist long enough to express causal relations but most have at least some small effect on their environment. The encounters between properties in their multiple relations, have causal implications for Harman that he calls a species of non-theistic “occasional cause”.

Some few of these object-relations have widespread and long-perduring outcomes. For example (mine, not Harman’s) the iron asteroid that struck Earth 5 billion years ago forming Earth’s core, producing a magnetic field, fueling future tectonic processes, and perhaps even creating our moon with all of its knock-on (hence symbiotic) effects, would be an “important object” that uncontroversially predates mind (on Earth at least). But where to place symbiosis? Start with the asteroid, but then it also has to be the asteroid-Earth-relation, the event (another object) of the impact, and so on. One symbiotic object produces many following object-event-relations. Does the symbiosis apply to all of them? I don’t think Harman would have a problem spreading out the symbiotic credit as it were, but the flatness of his ontology prevents him from drawing any hard lines. Any event, no matter how trivial (like the gravity of any mass) must have some effect on the world-line of any larger event with which it has now, or had in the past a relation. Harman is explicit about all of these objects (not only records in the present) being equally real even if only at some past time.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Even that subset of events with enough world-line effect merely to be recorded such that they appear as present records (physical evidence of their reality, not only formal documents) of past events may or may not be symbiotic in Harman’s view. Surely some recorded events (and by extension their records) were, and perhaps continue to be, more significant than others. There is a continuum of importance. Further, the effect of an event, any event, on a larger world-line spreads out towards the future resulting in an infinitely fine continuum of importance. Ontologically then there is nothing to divide the important from the unimportant (a classic sorites problem). The only relations in which mind-independent objects exhibit a property of importance are mind-dependent objects (see ‘sensual-objects’ below). I do not see how Harman can defend a line between unimportant and important without eventual reference to mind? The asteroid impact predated mind, but its importance stems from its causal impact on the evolution of mind, and in particular human mind, becoming aware of it.

Harman also introduces us to “dormant objects” which are more problematic than symbiotic objects. A “dormant object” emerges from its constituent relations but does not participate in any relations of which it is a constituent. A dormant object “has no effects”. Is such a thing even possible? An object must exist to have properties, but once it exists it immediately has properties and these enter into relations. There are no objects (mental or otherwise as we shall see) that do not immediately have properties and just as immediately (or at least at the speed of light) enter into relations. Perhaps such relations are trivial (analogous to the gravity of a proton) by our lights but they cannot be nonexistent.

In the end there is a top-of-the-chain relation between every particular and every other particular in the universe. This is not an “all is one” view like that of Heidegger or Whitehead because the relation of everything to everything else is no more or less real than the relation between any two atoms or thoughts anywhere in the universe. It is possible, given all the spatially or temporally extended relations, even the most trivial of events will turn out to be symbiotic when viewed over wide enough scales. Again Harman has no way to draw a line other than by “significance to mind”.

Harman also distinguishes between “real objects” and “sensual objects” where ‘real’ here means “mind independent”. The pink elephant floating in front of me is a sensual object as is the relation (resulting in a cognitive acquisition) between my mind and a mind independent tree. Both of these objects are (or might be) causally efficacious; having an influence on a subsequent world-line. If I see the pink elephant while driving I might swerve and cause an accident. If I am driving down a dirt road and see a tree in the middle of it I had better swerve to avoid an accident. I have no problem with this distinction, but it risks un-flattening Harman’s ontology. It at least takes a small step towards an ontological dualism (mind vs everything else) he wants very much to avoid. The move adds epistemology to ontology. The “objects of our minds” are like any other object except that they are ours, belong to an individual subjectivity, while all the other objects are not ours, not a property of a subjectivity! If this is, for Harman, an epistemological distinction without ontological weight, then we cannot possibly know, but only claim by speculative fiat, that all objects, sensual or otherwise, are “equally real”. I do not see how he can have it both ways.

Also problematic is Harman’s claim that “matter doesn’t exist”. I cannot find a way to make sense of this claim in the context of his “Object Oriented Ontology” (OOO). At first I thought perhaps he was suggesting the quantum wave function is the “real real” (some physicists believe this) and matter is merely a second-order by-product. But he doesn’t much talk about the wave function and he cites an example of two tectonic plates opposing each other “rock to rock” which seems material enough to me.

Another possibility is that Harman makes no room for universals. Red doesn’t exist only individual red objects. ‘Animals’ are not an object, only particular animals. But Harman considers sets to be good sensual objects and “classes” or “kinds” are merely another way to refer to sets. Red perhaps doesn’t work here because it is purely sensual, but ‘animals’ does. ‘Animals’ is a concept and so a sensual object. But it is not like the pink elephant because there are mind-independent individual animals tieing the sensual object to the mind-independent realm. Why can’t matter be a property common to some non-sensual objects?

Maybe this claim is about relations? Being (objects existing) entails relation and perhaps in the end relations (mental or entirely mind-independent) are the only objects we can talk about. But that wouldn’t imply that matter didn’t exist only that it might not exist. Relations are not made of matter but some of their relata might be. If existence is logically prior to properties and relations but we cannot grasp all of that in which this existence consists, who is to say that matter is not a part of the essense of some objects? From inside the phenomenal, direct access only to sensual objects, nothing entails or even implies that some non-sensual objects are not matter. OOO must remain ambivilant about this and this is not the end of the problem. Relata, for example non-sensual rocks, are also relations (between atoms) and they in turn are relations (between particles) and so on (infinitely alas) and so in the end there are no relata only relations and Harman is, in effect, defining matter away.

Haecceity seems to be something of a substitute for matter at least as concerns traditionally material objects. OOO here comes down to “there is a mind independent real but in the end we can never experience or embrace the core of it only its effects; manifestations in properties and relations.” But even granting this, the immateriality of properties and relations then cannot stand as evidence for or against the ontological genuineness of matter! If we cannot know “the core of being” then we cannot know that some of it is or is not matter.

I return to the question of what Harman gets out of this? The point of ontology is to be useful at least to other philosophical arenas (epistemology, ethics, aesthetics) and perhaps human endeavor in general whether in the hard or soft sciences, arts, politics, and so on. One thing he might get is univocality of cause. Harman says that cause is fundamentally “agent cause” because an object’s causal potential is some part of its withdrawn essence. But an object’s causal potential expresses through its properties and their relations with other objects. The agent (essence) is the secret of an object’s causality, but what objects manifest to one another are their properties and what mind recognizes of cause is revealed in object-relations.

Physical cause and mental cause are both “occasional” outcomes of relations derived ultimately from properties manifest by being. If this is so then “causal agency” is, ontologically speaking, an assertion of faith, a speculation. All that we know of cause is more suitably described in event or process terms. The ontological (object) status of events or discrete process has no epistemological bearing. Proposing a universal causal manifestation in relations (however grounded in a haecceity we cannot know) tells us nothing new. If everything is a relation, how could cause not express itself in or thru relation? Individual essences, events, and relations are all objects of equal ontological status. Cause therefore belongs to everything equally.

Like the continental tradition generally, Harman takes an interest in the social sciences. In “Immaterialism” (2016) he offers us an example of applied OOO in the form of a corporate history. A corporation is, after all, an object like everything else. It has a historical duration. It has relations to people, events, recordings (documents), and such; the stuff of its daily doings (all objects). Corporations also have relations to later historical events (more objects). The corporation he chooses is the Dutch East India Trading Company, known in Harman’s book by its Dutch initials VOC.

The VOC is an interesting choice because it has a clearly bounded history (1605 to 1795). It illustrates an object’s coming into existence and going from it. At the same time, undergoing many transformations and a participant (not to mention instigator) in many historical events, it shows the ability of objects to transform without thereby ceasing to exist and become new objects at every turn. He also explains here symbiotic objects and dormant objects using the same object, a document (policy statement) introduced by the corporation’s most notorious Governor-General in 1619.

What makes this document symbiotic? It had a far reaching effect on the actions (decisions taken by directors, employees, and so on) of the VOC for the next hundred years as compared (I suppose) to most of the thousands of other documents (minutes of board meetings, policy statements, and so forth) generated during that time; a clear “disproportionate effect”. How then could it also be dormant, an object with “no upward relation”? Harman tries to throw a little too much in here I think. The document was first dormant because it had no particular effect on the actions of the corporation until a few years after its introduction.

But how could Harman possibly know this? He does not know of any immediate effects precipitated by that document, but he cannot claim that there weren’t any. Sitting in the room, when the document was introduced were a pair of investors. One ran home immediately to his wife and said: “The governor general is a monster. We must sell everything we have and divest ourselves of VOC stock now!” The other investor likeways ran home to his wife and said: “that man is brilliant. We must divest of everything elsewhere and double down on VOC!” Now Harman might reply that yes after all there is no absolute but only relative dormancy. That my example is hypothetical and does not come down to us in the historical record (another object) is evidence that relations can be more or less fecund. But such a reply makes importance “importance to human mind”. Only humans care about documents or for that matter “the historical record”. What makes this document important is that it had disproportionate effect, over time, on the decisions of human beings and those, in turn, effected the lives of other humans. Our judgments of relative importance or unimportance are always judgments (themselves always sensual objects) with respect to their effects, ultimately, on other humans.

Immaterialism is given over to much detail on the doings of the VOC and in particular its doings after the introduction of that document. I can only imagine the idea is to show how relations can play themselves out. But in giving us this admittedly interesting history and connecting it up to a particular document Harman does no more than give us a description of decisions (on the part of people) and events (naval battles, enslavement, genocide) that read like a history told by any other historian. Harman neatly divides up traditional objects (cannon, ships, documents), people (decision makers and their decisions), and events (naval battles, invasions) that stand out primarily because they have come down to us in the historical record. Of course Harman ignores many records so he can thread these particulars together in a cohesive story and not write a thousand page book. The problematic part is that in describing all of this, Harman uses the conventional language of objects, relations, and events. Whether all of these are ontologically objects, makes not the slightest difference to the story. Whether or not a particular naval battle or act of genocide had a withdrawn essence that we cannot know simply has no bearing. “Everything is an object and all objects are equally real” doesn’t add anything to our grasp of this history.

Like Meillassoux, Harman is stuck behind the anti-realist wall. There is no hole in the wall for Meillassoux. His conclusions are purely inferences based on an epistemological assumption (the Principle of Sufficient Reason is true only for epistemology and not for ontology) about ontology. This restricts him to a very limited and tentative set of speculative conclusions about the nature of the mind-independent world. Mind independent contingency (for example) entails time and space apart from our mental categories. Beyond this, he cannot say anything about the structure of the extra-mental other than that it appears stable (for now) and is of necessity entirely contingent.

Harman also is not able to say very much about what is mind independent beyond that it is real and divided up into objects having infinite relations. Of course he can distinguish between rocks, rock concerts, and pink elephants because their properties vary, but these distinctions, these joints, are picked out by mind. Harman insists that they are real independent of mind, but his ontology supports this assertion only because every possible object-relation is real. Harman can go a bit further than Meillassoux because, while the mental arena cannot contact the core of any object, it does contact relations, and we are able to explain much using a language of relations as Harman does with the VOC. There is, in effect, a hole in Harman’s wall that lets [some] relations through to mind. The external relation between the tree and me invokes a sensual-object, my perception of the tree, in my mind. This is what allows Harman to say anything at all about the mind-independent world.

Harman’s mind-independent world is therefore a little richer than Meillassoux’s but on the other hand Meillassoux reasons himself to what he concludes about the world from a few assumptions. Harman simply intuits a solution and hopes that other work (like history, political science, art) will demonstrate its usefulness. Only Ferraris manages to get past the wall altogether by connecting up unamendability (a fixed past and the constraints of natural law) and affordance (opportunities, realizable potentials) the world presents to us and so realizes that there is no wall, only a screen, and the screen lets much through to mind which evolved in response to its transparency.

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