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.