John Searle: Seeing Things as they Are

selfie

I gave this book 5 stars in my review and possibly I should have left it at 4. Not only is Searle a bit over confident about consciousness in general (this is not the book’s focus but he does review his position because most perception happens in consciousness), and the validity of his somewhat circular argument for the nature of perception. However for other reasons (I am after all a realist philosopher) I do believe that his description of what it is that perception delivers to mind is correct, and he very effectively compares and contrasts that description to most of the other dominant philosophical threads on the subject. Thus even if his own view is not so perfectly supported, his demolition of competing views is effective.

Searle’s work dovetails with that of Maruzio Ferraris just about perfectly. I mention this in the review, but I want to say something more about the connection here. Both philosophers might be called “common sense realists” despite their emerging from radically different backgrounds; Searle from Anglo-analytic realism, and Ferraris from Continental anti-realism. For Ferraris, the evidence that our senses present (Searle’s term) already structured mind-independent reality is its unamendability. In terms of “objective ontology” a tree cannot be wished or for that matter simply pushed out of your path. In relation to subjective ontology (what vision presents to mind) you cannot simply “see it” ten feet to the left. By contrast, if you close your eyes and merely imagine the tree, you can, in your imagination, move it anywhere you wish. Reality (Ferraris again) also provides affordances. With the proper tools, you can cut the tree down and make a shelter from it. In Searle’s terms, mind-independent reality responds to (fits) our acts upon it.

I have two more books from Searle to read, the subject being social reality. I expect to find more parallels with Ferraris. For Ferraris, the ontologically objective basis of social reality is located in documents, from constitutions and laws to parking tickets and restaurant menus. One of the first things Searle mentions among constructed social phenomena is money, one of Ferraris’ recorded documents whether represented in bills, coins, or bits in computer memory. I expect to find these parallels because both Ferraris and Searle are genuine realists as compared to “speculative realists” like Harman and Meillassoux. For genuine realists the bottom line, the philosophical starting or ending (depending on which way you look at it) has to be, well, logically prior and already structured mind-independent “objective reality”. If realism is true, then all realists have to agree on (start or end with) the same mind-independent reality. This is clearly not the case with the “speculative realists” (see my “Problems with Object Oriented Ontology” and its links). Harman and Meillassoux come to different and mutually exclusive conclusions about what constitutes the mind-independent world because they are not fundamentally realists at all.

Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Kindle Edition 2015)

A very good book. Searle’s focus is on perception, particularly vision, but he brings the other senses in as well. He begins by reviewing what he calls the “bad argument” which he claims has misled philosophy for the past few hundred years. His review of the “bad argument” is straight forward but its badness springs directly from its opposition to his own view which he calls “direct realism”, a term he prefers to “naive realism” which nevertheless also fits his position. Searle’s view is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. I would call it “common sense realism”, but M. Ferraris has already adopted that phrase for his “new realism”. The two views have much in common, but Ferraris’ focus is not perception as such. I have reviewed a few of Ferraris’ books elsewhere on Amazon.

In an early chapter on consciousness in general Searle burnishes his materialist credentials by declaring (at least as concerns life on Earth) that consciousness is necessarily associated with brains (which is uncontroversial), but he also declares that brains alone are sufficient to produce consciousness, something that no one (on Earth) knows for sure. This precisely why there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. He repeats this claim a few times but his theory of perception does not hang on it. Another quibble is that he is a little sloppy as concerns statements of cosmological fact. In one of his examples he says “I look at the star and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago”. He could only mean “I look at the stellar explosion” (a nova or supernova) and know it ceased to exist millions of years ago.” If he “sees the star” then the light of its demise has not reached us yet and he could not know that it has already ceased to exist.

Searle begins by recognizing that when we experience something visually, what we have is a “subjective ontology”, a phenomenal experience that philosophers for centuries have called a “sense datum”. The “bad argument” comes down to the belief that this sense datum is really all we KNOW and that for all we know there is nothing about “objective ontology”, the structure of the mind-independent world, to which we have access unless the sense datum represents the objective to the subjective. What has confused philosophy for centuries is the matter of how (or if) this representation actually works. Searle’s argument here is very simple. Our senses, particularly vision and touch, do not merely represent the world, but PRESENT it, presentation being a special case of representation. What constitutes presentation specifically is that there are “conditions of satisfaction” for the presentation. If I see a tree, the sense datum is satisfied (and so presented and not merely represented) by there being an actual tree where I see it. This accounts for hallucinations. If the identical sense datum is hallucinated then the satisfaction criteria are not met, no tree is present where I appear to see it.

Presentation is causal with the direction of cause going from world to mind, objective to subjective. Response (what Searle calls “direction of fit”), on the other hand goes from mind to world. Searle also gets a bit into “action” because it happens that its connection between mind and world is the inverse of perception. Cause goes from mind to world and the “direction of fit” from world to mind. This ties in beautifully with Ferraris’ concepts “unamendability” (perception) and affordance (action). Searle recognizes the matter of will, free will, comes up here but he demurs. I would like to see him talk about it somewhere.

Searle goes on to flesh out perception with a distinction between basic presentational properties like shape, color, motion, and so on, and those properties that require background knowledge on the part of the receiver. Perception is hierarchical. This accounts for the distinction between seeing a shape and color (basic perception) and seeing “an automobile”, and further up the hierarchy (additional background), recognizing “my car”. Importantly, “conditions of satisfaction” lie all the way up the hierarchy and they really apply TO THE OBJECT. The base phenomenology is not only a black object of such and such a size, but a car, and furthermore, it really is my car! All of this makes perfect sense to me, but then I am also a realist. It is hard to imagine not living one’s life in a realist mental environment. If you are about to step off a curb into a lane of traffic but have a visual experience of a black object about the size of a car hurtling down the same lane towards you, you likely ASSUME that the object IS a car and that it makes sense not to step into the lane. You take for granted that the object is being presented and not merely represented to you.

Philosophically though, Searle’s perception requires two assumptions. First that your brain and sensory system are operating within normal parameters, and second that the mind-independent world is genuinely structured AS PRESENTED. It is this mind-independent structure (including I believe its causal relations) that constitutes the “conditions of satisfaction” of the presentation which rests also on the causal relations between perception and the perceived object! For Searle to get his theory of perception out, he has to presuppose that the world is real and already structured having causal properties. The apropos structure must be present to be presented. This is the very assumption that anti-realists want desperately to avoid and it makes Searle’s argument circular. Because of the causal properties, the demand that we live AS IF the world is presented breaks the tie in favor of Searle’s position (and against anti-realism), but I do not recall him acknowledging this circularity..

Apart from this omission, the book is a very refreshing departure from all the anti-realism I’ve been reading lately. It is not a long or very technical read. I highly recommend it.

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.

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.

Review: Hicks, Postmodernism

Not a long or profound review here but I put it up because the topic has come up a lot lately on various philosophy forums. One can trace the development of postmodernism all the way from the Greeks, but in our era, it all begins with Kant and the question of “what we can know?”. It is an epistemological position, about truth and what we can know of it. There are both Anglo-analytic and continental expressions of it, but the dominant thread runs through continental antirealist philosophy. As the history of Western philosophy progressed the notion of what we could know, how we could recognize truth became narrower and narrower. Eventually someone thought: “well if there is nothing we can know for sure, no truth that we can be absolutely sure of, perhaps there isn’t any such thing as truth that can be known at all”. From there it was but a small step for the next philosopher to add: “It doesn’t matter that we try to approach truth. Since we cannot know what it is, or even in what direction it lies, we can call anything we want ‘truth'” and with this, postmodernism was born. If you don’t like postmodernism (I don’t). If you think it leads down a dangerous path; “getting what you want matters, truth does not, any lie is justified and the ends always justify the means” (I do), then this is a book for you. Hicks skewers postmodernism with both humor and philosophical rigor.

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Kindle Edition 2010) by Stephen Hicks

Not often I get to say of a non-fiction book that I didn’t want to put it down and was sad when I reached the end. Except for a sense of the movement’s nihilism, I didn’t know much about Postmodernism, but Dr. Hicks has covered the ground. He begins with a broad brush of what postmodernism stands for metaphysically (anti-realism), epistemologically (skepticism), ethically (collectivism in the social, educational and political sphere) and aesthetically (the meaninglessness of art and criticism). One gets the impression that he knows the subject well. His attention to detail is that of the scholar and even the true believer, but he hints slyly at the movement’s absurdity even here. From his review he goes backwards and traces the roots of the movement beginning with Kant’s response to the Enlightenment in an attempt to shore up the authority of the Church, and up through Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Nietzsche, Marx, and then Heidegger to the later 20th century with Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty. There are many other voices mentioned along the way (Kierkegaard plays a role as does Freud). Besides philosophers he traces political movements of the left and the right in opposition to the Enlightenment’s development of capitalism resting on individualism.

In the last chapter HIcks returns to Postmodernism proper and its absurdity from the metaphysical and epistemological to the political and aesthetic. In 200 hundred years every political and social consequence of anti-Enlightenment philosophy, every prediction and political hope has singularly failed. Postmodernism is the response to this failure by philosophers who come to the conclusion that if the foundation and development of the anti-Enlightenment movement over 200 years is rotten the only thing left to do, besides admit that you are wrong, is attack and destroy what the Enlightenment produced. Even Nietzsche (who Hicks returns to illustratively at the end) presciently suggests that one can take anti-realism and nihilism too far leaving the postmodernists to “quote Nietzsche less and Rousseau more”. Not only is Postmodernism nihilistic, it is destructively so, the bitter fruits of jealousy over the failure of collectivist anti-realism and seeming political, economic, and social success of Enlightenment realism, rationalism, and individualism.

An excellent review, through, scholarly, and easy to read. I find Hick’s style both serious and humerous at the same time. Superb!

Review: Deacon “Incomplete Nature”

The book here is 6 years old but only recently reviewed by me. Somehow it escaped my attention until now. This is one of those books that no short review could do justice. I said so much in the review, but I will stand for now on what I wrote in it albeit I emphasize that it is summary, oversimplified, and confusing because terms like “teleodynamic” are not defined (in the review) not to mention a half dozen other terms that Deacon creates for the sake of necessary abstractions with which to continue the narrative. In the book, every one of these new terms is carefully explained, defined, and justified.

In this commentary, I’m not going to expand on or further clarify the review but rather say something about what “isn’t there”, something I think Dr. Deacon will appreciate. In “Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” the authors build a case that amounts to saying what is important about the way the universe turned out is the particular historical path followed by its events. At different points of the universe’s history different things might have happened, but what should be informing present science, theories about origins and destinies, is what actually happened. The material world is contingent; things might have happened otherwise, but they happened to happen the way they did and that way was not only perfectly compatible with the regularities of physics but just as likely to have happened as any other outcome compatible with those regularities. The question of why things went one way rather than another can be asked, but not answered (if even then) until after the fact.

This view is perfectly compatible with Deacon’s account of the rise of life and consciousness but Deacon emphasizes what Unger and Smolin leave out. As goes life and mind what didn’t happen, that is what was excluded and made impossible (or improbable) by what did happen, is the real key to understanding how the particular path that is history came out as it did. As in “Singular Universe”, from any given temporal viewpoint, we can no more predict what exactly will be excluded in the future than we can predict what will happen. Why certain possible histories were precluded can, again, be answered only after the fact. While this viewpoint may make it possible to more fully understand the relation between basic physics, the origin of life, and the nature (and causal efficacy) of consciousness (a case Deacon makes well), it doesn’t in the slightest demonstrate that the path actually taken was accidental.

Since historical outcomes (and exclusions) were just as possible as alternatives that “might have been”, if in fact such outcomes were not literally accidental, there would be no way to tell. To put it another way, if God wanted to make physics do the maximum possible work (sans intervention) to result in life and consciousness, the possibility of this pathway, this set of exclusions (emergent constraints resulting in emergent attractors), perfectly lawful and equally likely, would be the very sort of process involved. Because the information bearing nature of the final outcome is the result of possibilities subtracted away from the infinite possibilities present at earlier stages it stands out only after the fact. Rather than there being no evidence for teleology added up-front, there couldn’t be (evidence) by presupposition because what happened was always one possibility among others.

Deacon is a materialist and insists that his theory at least suggests how life and consciousness could arise out of nothing more than the regularities of physics. He insists that his theory explains these phenomena without resort to anything but physics and he is right, in a way it does. But the theory relies on the fact that the “telos” of the physical process appears only after-the-fact and that renders anything non-accidental (provided it does not violate the regularities of physics) occurring before-the-fact completely invisible.

But perhaps this is a superficial criticism. It can be applied to any purely physical theory whatsoever. Deacon has a bigger problem. Truly an absence, a hole for example, is not a material thing; neither substance nor process. So we have an easy route from physics to non-materiality. It is less clear how absences are causes, formal or efficient (the two levels Deacon relies upon). Surely they can contribute to efficient causes (contributory cause) by being one of a combination of circumstances that together are a cause. They can also be a component of formal causes, of the form of a thing that determines its causal efficacy. But I cannot think of an example where absence qua absence is the sole, single, cause of anything efficient or formal.

Further, consciousness, at least as I experience it, while it might emerge as a result of constraints resulting in an important non-material absence, an attractor (surely these do have a role to play) in association with other causes, is not itself an absence, but a positive; a presence. It is the most present phenomenon to my experience because it is my experience, my subjective perspective. But nowhere in Deacon’s book does he manage to explain how a causally efficacious non-material presence (not absence) emerges. This is merely another way of saying “the way our experience is and not some other way”, but either way you phrase it, Deacon doesn’t arrive at it. In Deacon’s view, consciousness has to emerge from a constraint that emerges in an attractor. But attractors are empty, while consciousness, that is subjectivity, is not.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2011)

This is a great book! For years now I’ve read books by scientists and philosophers addressing the origins of life and consciousness. Many often point to “self organizing” phenomena in the universe (a simple example, simmering water in a pot organizing itself into columns of bubbles, or the way in which water flow in a chaotic rapid can here and there form stable whirlpools) and claim that life’s origin, and eventually even consciousness, are nothing more than complex examples of this process. But none of them make the attempt to cross the divide between these simple regularities and the far more complex nature of life and mind.

In this long book Dr. Deacon uses every page to meticulously build argument upon argument and example upon example in an effort to show exactly how this might be possible both for life and consciousness. His key insight, carefully crafted and expanded all the way along the narrative, is that it isn’t what is present in any particular material organization that matters, but rather what is absent; what the structure of any given complexifying phenomenon constrains away. It isn’t what happens that matters so much as what the evolving structures (structure here should be understood as both stuff and process) prevent from happening. To take a simple and non-dynamical example, a house functions as a home not because it has a certain structure but because that structure precludes it being something else, a boat, a bridge, or a pile of rubble.

Deacon begins by setting a very high bar. He insists that any theory of life and its origins respect its extraordinary complexity and the near impossibility of the dynamic relations between its parts falling together accidentally. Similarly with consciousness he insists that any theory of mind takes into account its patently dualistic nature and causal efficacy. Mind cannot be illusory or epiphenomenal. Life and mind are both teleological (purposeful, end-directed) by nature and he insists that the appearance of teleology in life and mind be accommodated in any theory of its origins and functions. But he also insists that all of this be accounted for by the laws of physics and in particular, the second law of thermodynamics. He spends a chapter explicating and rejecting a generalized theory of homunculi, that is solutions requiring anything, structure, process, or information, imposed from the outside. Somehow, we have to get from physics to mind while recognizing that mind is not physics. Instead, in his view, the solution amounts to a foreground/background reversal. It isn’t the physical stuff or process that results in life or mind, but rather what physical evolution (non-living, then living, then mental) constrains out of possibility.

Deacon carefully crafts his argument focusing on the physical concept of work and the logic of attractors. In physics, work is possible only when there is a thermodynamic gradient. In unbounded (having no formal boundary like a cell wall) physical dynamics, thermodynamic gradients, under the right conditions, can become morphodynamic; taking on a shape (the self-organizing process) that serves to increase the efficiency of thermodynamic dissipation. But in bounded systems (in the first instance boundaries formed by natural conditions having nothing to do with life) a new type of dynamic becomes possible, one that reduces dissipation internally in exchange for increased dissipation between the bounded system an the outside. This is the beginning of teleodynamic organization. He is careful to note that “telos” here is not something imposed from the outside, but rather the appearance of end-directedness stemming from the emergence of the constraints against dissipation on the inside. Once a teleodynamic emerges, other teleodynamic constraints can emerge from it compounding constraint upon constraint which, when viewed after the fact, amount to a compounding of information.

This then is the core of his theory which he then traces up from proto-life to life and from life, via Darwinian evolution (which never adds information, but rather selects out information emerging in compounded teleodynamics relevant to the [then] present environment) to mind. In each step it isn’t what happens or what exists that matters so much as what is progressively constrained or prevented from happening. I want to emphasize that this statement is a highly simplified summary of Deacon’s far more complex but clearly enunciated argument. In the end, mind has causal efficacy because it is itself a hole, an attractor, and by disturbing the metaphorical shape of its own attractor (constraint on constraint on constraint) affects the underlying (metaphorical) shape of the attractors (now neurological) that support it.

This is a book to which no short review can do justice. It is well argued and written for a general audience with a basic grasp of physical principles. Readers with a grasp of high school physics will do fine. But does he succeed? In his last chapter he notes that even the emergence of human social systems, government, economics, even values, amount to further constraints that operate to reduce entropic dissipation in the social system that bounds them. All of this makes perfect sense in the context of his fundamental insight, but he never explains why it all should come out as the experience of subjectivity that we have and not something else with equal capacity to dynamically constrain. This however is not a shortcoming in the basic argument. The emergence of all these constraints (and thus the attractors they manifest) can only be recognized after the fact. Before the fact there are always other possibilities. In short, Deacon goes farther than anyone else in crafting a pathway leading from physics to mind.

Review: Two by Harman

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Graham Harman is the third of the three “New Realists”, a group that consists also of Maurizio Ferraris and Quentin Meillassoux. The links will take you to their individual reviews. Each differs from the others in significant ways. What they seem to have in common are roots in continental antirealism and yet discover that they can say something positive, something we can know, about the world beyond the horizon of human experience. Meillassoux and Harman claim to be doing speculation (hence “speculative realism”) and not metaphysics, but their speculations are clearly on metaphysical themes. Of the three, Ferraris is the most straightforward and commonsensical (hence his “commonsense realism”).

In “Personal Agency” (2006) E. J. Lowe anticipates Harman. For Lowe all cause is “agent cause” though not all agents are animate. Humans and animals are agents of course, but so are rocks, hurricanes, and fires. Agent-cause seems to be an entailment of Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, an entailment he alludes to in the first book reviewed below. He says that causal efficacy is associated in the end with being itself, that it is the being that withdraws from us, the being of the object that interacts causally with other being, other objects. This seems to me not only compatible with Lowe but provides speculative metaphysical support for it.

Towards Speculative Realism: Essays & Lectures (Kindle Edition 2010)

Harman is one of a small school of contemporary philosophers (including Meillassoux and Ferraris) who are both continentals (in Harman’s case in style only as he is an American) and broadly consider themselves “realists”, something out of fashion in continental philosophy since Kant. But despite this loose grouping into a “new realist” school, all three of these philosophers are very different. Harman calls his own variation “Object Oriented Ontology” and this book traces the evolution of Harman’s thought into OOO from 1997 as an expert Heidegger interpreter to a brief statement of his thought on the subject in 2009, the date of the last essay in the book.

The book is therefore mostly of historical interest as concerns the development of OOO from Hurserl’s phenomenology, Heidegger’s tool-being, and Whitehead’s process philosophy to a full fledged metaphysics of objects. While we see this thought-development in action here we never get more than pieces of the fully fleshed out OOO even in the last essays of the book. Essentially Harman states his position not in a positive way for itself, but as contrasted with contemporaries (like DeLanda, Deleuze, and Latour). The book makes clear the contributions of this lineage to Harman’s own thought (especially the “assemblage theory” of Latour and DeLanda) and I suppose that is its purpose after all. For me, Harman’s OOO seems like more of a starting point than a finished ontological system, but then as noted above, Harman never does give us a fully elaborated ontology in this book. All in all the whole text strikes me as an answer to the question “why do ontology” rather than the ontology itself.

As E. J. Lowe pointed out in “The Possibility of Metaphysics” and “The Four Category Ontology”, a good ontology can help to clarify the margins of scientific investigation and contextualize the relation between mind and matter, goals also embedded in Harman’s OOO. But while ostensibly “realist” in outcome, Harman’s style (like Meillassoux but unlike Ferraris) is continental antirealist demonstrated by his distinction between “objects” and “intentional objects”. “Speculative realism” is, after all, antirealism speculating about “the real” within and beyond the horizon of experience. But again, perhaps this distinction is only another way-station in the evolution of Harman’s thought.

If you are a Harman fan you should read this book. If you are looking for a concise statement of Object Oriented Ontology there might be a better Harman book or paper out there.

Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory Redux (Kindle Edition 2016)

Immaterialism is a better read than Harman’s “Toward Speculative Realism” which I also reviewed. My own interest in Harman is the result of his inclusion in the “New Realist” school, though all three of its core members (Harman, Ferraris, and Meillassoux) hold very different positions. This book is a clearer though yet only skeletal summary of Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology”. Harman claims not to be a materialist but an immaterialist. If this suggests a view peculiar to Harman, it is.

The book begins with a summary of Object Oriented Ontology in comparison to the earlier “Assemblage Network Theory” of Latour from which Harman evolved it. The book’s second-to-last chapter also comes back to the relation between ANT and OOO. In his last chapter, Harman lists 15 characteristics or principles of OOO. I would like to know if and where he has supported the development of OOO in some more formal way, but as yet I find only statements of its conclusions.

The core of this little book, a somewhat strange choice here though there is method in Harman’s madness, is the history of a corporate entity, the Dutch East India Trading Company shortened, in the book, to its Dutch initials VOC. In OOO everything is an object. Rocks, stars, and individual animals are objects as are chairs and statues, ideas, and also the atoms of which all of these are composed. Parenthetically, like a few other philosophers I’ve read recently, Harman is strangely sloppy with scientific allusions stating repeatedly that “hydrogen is produced in stellar fusion” for example. But back to objects, we also have such things as societies, economies, clubs, along with more fleeting entities like the meeting of a particular board of directors on a certain day. Everything that can be conceived as having any sort of unifying principle (recognized by mind as a “joint in the world” — my interpretation, Harman does not use this phrase though it seems to fit), however enduring or fleeting in time, is an object and all objects are equally real, though not all equally important.

The unequal importance idea is one place Harman’s OOO gets into trouble. Since everything is equally real there isn’t any objective purchase for a hierarchy of importance other than the human/world divide Harman aims to flatten out! OOO wants to reintroduce being to philosophical respectability. We cannot “know being” directly, or for that matter even indirectly, and Harman admits that it is a posit for the sake of understanding, that is making more coherent, what we can know, qualities and properties through which we (also objects) experience. Objects (even inanimate objects), similarly experience us. This is not taken to mean “psychically” in the case of inanimate objects, and the significance of the encounter is not (though it can be) symmetrical. If, skiing, I run into a big tree, the impact has little effect on the tree but could dramatically change the course of my life, possibly even ending it. But being that cannot in principle be known cannot be connected up to its qualities (the connection is always mysterious) and so might or might not exist (be real) at all.

In Immaterialism, Harman is at pains to show how OOO works in the social realm and thus the object of his attention is a corporation, the VOC, technically in business for 193 years from its founding in 1602 to its nationalization in 1795. An amazing history. Such objects obviously have an impact on history, broadly conceived, in every year of their existence, but only some of these impacts rise to awareness in the present day. The same is true of events, and other objects (in the case of the VOC these turn out to be a turning-point document in 1619, the character of certain individuals, and the evolving technology of naval weapons) that impact or redirect this history of the entity. The big events he terms “symbiotic” because while perhaps fleeting objects in themselves (a naval engagement) they end up having a disproportionate effect on the subsequent history of the object under investigation.

Harman traces all of this out through the history of the VOC making the case that the changes which history records presuppose an entity with a being (the VOC) “to which” these things occur and which responds by transforming (over time) in particular ways. What the introduction of being supposedly gives us is the contingency of those transformations. Things happened the way they did, but they need not have happened that way. That there was the potential for something else to have happened seems to be what the “unknowability of the object’s being” gives us. As I’ve said, Harman doesn’t argue for any of this here but only states it and illustrates how it applies to a social construct. The kindest interpretation I can give to Harman here is that the history of a particular social structure gives evidence that there are always latent potentials in a thing that never get realized. Further, beyond potentials, hidden being is not merely hidden because no history ever exposes all its potentials, but because by nature those potentials are infinitely fine, inexhaustible!

My question is does it matter to anything that happens to anything in the universe if OOO is true or false? In OOO, even events are objects and have a being in which their unitarity (as an event) inheres. But exactly the same things happen (qualities interact) and the same infinite latent potentials in objects across time exist whether being itself is real or the object is nothing more than the sum of these. Even if Harman manages, somewhere, to argue properly for OOO, I wonder if it is not something of a Pyrrhic victory. I do not see what accepting it accomplishes; how it enhances our insight into the world of our experience.

Review: Three by Ferraris

I’ve read three books by Dr. Ferraris reviewed here in order of my reading. Of the three the first, “Introduction to New Realism”, was the best read. The second, his “Manifesto of New Realism” is specifically a comparison between New Realism and Antirealism. The third book, “Positive Realism” is an extension of the Manifesto focusing on New Realism itself. Overall I think Ferraris’ work on social systems is the most innovative. I would love to read his “Documentality” which focuses on his social realism, but as yet there is no Kindle version. I’m starting something new with this post. I’ve read and reviewed multiple books by a few authors like Ferraris. Rather than multiply these postings with individual reviews and commentary, I will gather these reviews into a single post (all separate reviews with links to their books included) and comment on all of them as a group — which from a philosophy viewpoint makes sense anyway…

I’ve read books now by all three of the philosophers said to be the core of the “New Realist” school of continental philosophy, Ferraris, Meillassoux, and Harman (Harman an American but continent-ally inclined). I will have to work up an essay comparing the three one of these days, but for now I will say that of the three, Ferraris is the most straightforward and commonsensical. In fact his variation on the school name seems to be “commonsense realism”. He begins with what is apparently real, physical objects of natural and artifactual kinds along with social constructs like economies or nations, and examines those properties that ground their reality in the physical — either substance, process, or both. It turns out, there is always something.

Harman simply goes too far off the object deep end. Everything, even temporary accidental relations (Ted is taller than Fred) is an object equally real. He does not say that they are equally important however, but importance here must not be construed only as “importance to humans”. I think some of what he takes to be features of his theory are distortions that amount to the very selective attention to details of behavior (what effects an object has) or composition (what an object is made from) that his theory (called “Object Oriented Ontology”) eschews. My Harman review is here.

Meillassoux retains the most continental flavor of the three. I have a Meillassoux review (“After Finitude”) up now for my take on him. He is a great example of analysis in a continental vein. Of the three authors he is the only one who ultimately gets to his version of realism (“speculative realism”) from purely continental-antirealist roots.

Introduction to New Realism —

This is a very good read if you are looking for a solid introduction to the New Realism movement in 21st century philosophy. Ferraris is at the very core of that movement which, as with most philosophical movements, also has a few variations.

The book begins with an introduction by Iain H. Grant. It is meant as a survey of a survey, but it seems muddy compared to the text by Ferraris. As it turns out, once you’ve read the text itself, the meanings of the introduction become much clearer and it becomes an excellent introduction to the introduction,

This is the first “continental philosophy” I’ve read in a while. It points to the presently fashionable anti-realism in continental and analytic philosophy stemming all the way from Kant and updated in what is called Correlationism in which the phenomenal and noumenal are at least connected to one degree or another. A recent book, the author refers to cultural phenomena from movies (The Matrix) to YouTube to illustrate some of his points.

Ferraris begins by telling us the world out there is much as we perceive it. What we take to be common sense distinctions, what contemporaries call “joints in the world”, like animals, trees, chairs, statues, stars, and galaxies are all really out there and not superimposed by mind. We perceive the joints! This is not to ignore the discoveries of science, and the present day realization that underneath all of what we perceive is a reality that can only be measured indirectly and inferred. Ferraris says this is real too. Nor does he deny that our minds project additional meaning onto what is perceived. So as concerns physics this is all pretty straight forward, genuinely “common sense” as in “Common Sense Realism”, another name for this movement. The book gets really interesting when the author moves into the social world.

Human institutions like money, marriage, traffic laws, and nations are the product of human minds. They are not “out there” in the universe independent of us. What is real (and here’s where New Realism comes back in) are the documents and recordings that serve now as the ground of these creations. Documents are everything from national constitutions, contracts, menus, and traffic tickets. They can be in any form written or electronic. What’s important is that once the record is made it exists outside of us. Unlike stars and trees of course, the record becomes worthless, just another object, if there is no one who can interpret it apart from its existence as an object. This is where the social and physical sphere differ. The foundation of the social is the recording AND the capacity of mind to interpret it.

Following the text there is an afterword in the form of an essay by Sarah De Sanctis (who is also the translator) and Vincenzo Santarcangelo which compares and contrasts the New New Realism of Ferraris with a variation called Speculative Realism. In this it does a fine job illustrating their common ground and the subtle distinction between them.

In all of this I have to give credit to the translator. Some of the sentence structure is a little less concise than it could be, but I understand that in the original Italian the sentences are much more convoluted. If the introduction is a little muddy, the main text and follow-on essay are very clear and easy to read. This book is, as it says, an introduction, and the author does not try to apply his insight everywhere, but only to cite examples helpful in illustrating the salient features of the core philosophy. Well written, and well translated.

Manifesto of New Realism

First published a few years prior to his “Introduction to New Realism” (2015 — Also reviewed on Amazon) in 2012, this book is cast as a contrast to the dominant philosophical (more properly anti philosophical) movement, Postmodernism, it evolved to critique. New Realism can stand on its own, a more grown-up version of the realism underlying the Enlightenment. Ferraris gives it that emphasis in his later book. In the “Manifesto” he explores New Realism more historically as a response to the increasingly antirealism metaphysics and epistemologies of the 20th century (though first taking root as far back as Kant) leading to mid to late 20th century Postmodernism. He addresses Postmodernism’s metaphysics, epistemology, and their consequences for social philosophy — which includes aesthetics, ethics, and everything else having to do with human beings in a social setting. In part then this book is a critique of both Antirealism and Postmodernism from the New Realism perspective.

As goes metaphysics and epistemology Ferraris argues convincingly that the conclusions of the antirealists (his approach is towards what he calls “constructivism” which is something of a corollary of antirealism) are mostly not true here despite the presence of ambiguous cases. As concerns the social sphere, he grants much more to constructivism, but argues that this tells only half the story, the other half being the ubiquity of documentation, something that, once created by humans, becomes the independent reality underlying the persistent social arena. Constructivism engenders Postmodernism, but in the latter all trust in and reliance on “reality” collapses and philosophy consumes itself in what amounts to a “new nihilism” and even a “new solipsism”. New Realism is a good dash of cold water not only waking the self-contradictory philosopher, while providing a positive but not naive foundation on which to build.

This is a short book and a bit over-priced in my opinion, but that onus lies with the publisher and not the author or Amazon. High priced or not, it is a good book especially for setting a proper context for New Realism in relation to Postmodernism. I liked the newer “Introduction to New Realism” a bit better but there is different material here and the student of Ferraris’ work will certainly want to understand both.

Positive Realism

This book something of an addendum to the author’s “Manifesto of New Realism”. While the former book illustrated New Realism by contrast to Postmodernism, this book moves over to a stand-alone statement of what New Realism stands for on its own beginning with the metaphysical, then moving to the epistemological and the social. As such it stands also as something of an introduction to Ferraris’ “Introduction to New Realism” written somewhat later. There is a little more focus here on New Realism’s approach to art, especially literary fiction, and a final chapter exploring what New Realism has to say about possibility, potentials that aren’t yet real. Cast in the form of a dialog this last chapter ends up being more about the fact that sometimes the line between what is independent of us (of the constructs of our minds) and what is not is sometimes blurred.

This is a short book and thankfully reasonably priced in the Kindle edition. The production is good and the translation clear and smoothly done. Ferraris has a great translator in Maria De Sanctus. Any one of these books would serve as an introduction to New Realism, each covering all the ground but written with a different focus.