Musings on "Object-Oriented Philosophy"

From here:

The situation is really quite simple, as I see it. We have tried so many permutations of the post-Kantian option that places the human-world relation at the center of all philosophy, with object-object relations tossed aside to the natural sciences. Philosophy in many circles has come to be identified with the primacy of the human-world relation over all others. (See for example the statements of Zizek, whom I greatly admire, that “Kant was the first philosopher.” And he really means it.)

Ultimately, the only way to escape a tiny, crowded room is not to find new ingenious twists for looking at our imprisonment, but simply to leave the room.

Yes, I’m well aware that many people think phenomenology already turned that trick. As a passionate admirer of phenomenology, I feel qualified to say “nonsense” to that claim.

Saying that we are not isolated Cartesian subjects, but are always already involved with a world, and things of that sort, does not solve the problem. It still leaves human and world as the two personae in every philosophical drama, even if the human part is given dehumanized names such as “Dasein” or “subject.”

The litmus test is always quite simple: are you willing, as Whitehead was willing, to say that the relation between cotton and fire plays by the same rules as the relation between human and fire? If so, then welcome aboard– you are one of my people.

The reason many people resist this suggestion is that it sounds like “positivism,” by which the critics really mean naturalism. In other words, it sounds like I’m suggesting that the human-world relation be reduced to the plane of brain chemistry or the motion of atoms.

No. This would be to privilege the sole reality of a physical micro-realm and claim that the human world is merely derivative thereof. That’s not what I’m claiming at all. Instead, I’m claiming that just as the reality of a hammer withdraws from human Dasein in Sein und Zeit, so too does the reality of cotton withdraw from the fire; the fire does not access all aspects of the cotton. (Or even any of them, but that’s a more complicated point for a different time.)

There are a couple things I want to comment on here. First, in regard to the “litmus test” of Whitehead, what is the point of such a test? What does “playing by the same rules” mean? Following the laws of physics? Having a similar experience? Without clarifying what the rules are, such a test is meaningless and largely confusing given that the “experience” of cotton in terms of fire is much different than the experience of humans in terms of fire. Fire causes humans pain. It also is a source of entertainment, food, warmth, mystery, awe, and wonder. The piece of cotton does not interact with fire in the same way as humans do because cotton is not a self-organizing biological entity capable of emotion, thought,self-interpretation, and perception. The only “rules” both the cotton and the human are following are the rules of physics. But this is trivial if you are a naturalist, so surely this isn’t what object-oriented philosophy (OOP) boils down to.

So what is the point of such a test? What is it supposed to show? Without specifying that exact way in which the piece of cotton’s interaction with the fire resembles the phenomenon of apprehending or being conscious of fire, OOP is left vague. Unless Harman wants to take the eliminativist route and claim that human apprehension or consciousness does not occur, and that there is no subject-object intentionality going on, I simply don’t understand what OOP is railing against. Perhaps they simply wish to change the scope of what has traditionally been a “human-centered” enterprise: philosophy; the love of wisdom. Since time immemorial philosophy has been human-centered insofar as humans are the only entity capable of posing questions like “what are beings?”, “what is the self?”, “how can the self know itself?” It is these questions which bring philosophy back into the human world of reflexive knowledge and self-referential thinking. OOP then is not really philosophy per se, but rather, closer to a science given that it is not interested in these self-referential questions. Philosophy has to be human-centered, because what other object other than the human is capable of posing the question of what it means to love wisdom i.e. self-knowledge?

Furthermore, I question the appropriation of Heidegger into OOP through the claim that they are only “Heideggerizing” philosophy through the insistence that even objects “take” limited aspects of other objects, in the same way that humans only “unconceal” certain aspects of the world. Besides questioning the metaphor of fire “accessing” anything, this appropriation of Heidegger seems to be the result of an overzealous interpretation of Heideggerian cognition in terms of an “absorbed coping”, in which the hammer becomes “invisible” to the user. I would imagine that this interpretation then goes on to says that the “objecthood” of the hammer only arises when the human steps back and detaches huself from the situation at hand and cognizes in terms of the “present-at-hand”. We then get Levi from Larval Subjects saying:

For Heidegger we need Dasein for any objects to be disclosed at all. That is, human beings always hold pride of place or a privileged place. Any difference that we talk about in Heidegger’s framework always has the implicit qualification of “in relation to Dasein”. The idea of talking about objects without humans or Dasein for Heidegger is completely incoherent. Thus while I heartily agree with your second and third sentence, I do not think these are claims that can be properly made within a Heideggerian framework.

Such a reading is predictable given my diagnosis of being too wrapped up in an “absorbed coping” model, where the hammer-ness “retreats” into the background when actually interacting with the hammer fluently. Subsequently, from such a reading, in order for “objecthood” to arise there needs to be the human disclosure of that objecthood. We are then thrown into classic anti-realism. But such a reading fails to capture the distinction Heidegger makes between being as presence and presence-at-hand. Being as presence is the object-object relation of the world, irrespective of human disclosure. This is everything Harman and friends want: a conception of the objects in the world that doesn’t have anything to do with the way in which humans understand and perceive those objects. Presence-at-hand, however, is the peculiar capacity for humans to look at the presence of the world in terms of objectivity, rather than relational values in terms of the ready-to-hand, which is more phenomenologically common.

In this way, it is decidedly not incoherent for Heidegger to talk about objects irrespective of human disclosure. Levi’s interpretation is misleading given that for both early and later Heidegger, human disclosure is dependent on the “event” happening in the first place, which certainly happens without the active interference of humans. The world is “there”, independent of us. Taylor Carman offers a superb rendition of this form of ontic realism in his Heidegger’s Analytic. I fully agree with everything he says in regards to Heidegger’s realism. In effect, the anti-realism leveled against Heideggerian philosophy by folks like Harman and Levi is simply a strawman. The realist Heidegger I see in the text largely denies that it is impossible to talk about object-object relations independently of human disclosure. We can already do this pretty well through the means of science, which works in the cognizing mode of presence-at-hand. But this cognizing mode is merely an interpretation of the already present world: the presence of the totality of entities – the formal conception of phenomena as “that which appears”, with “that” being defined as independent of humans but nevertheless presented to humans.

Moreover, Levi is taking advantage of the dual meaning of “object”. In Heideggerian parlance, talking about “objects” in the world without Dasein is ill conceived given that it is the human who gives the presence of the world the mental label “object” through the refential understanding of “whatness” through for-the-sake-of-whiches, etc. On the other hand, the “objects” of the world, in terms of being “there”, irrespective of human disclosure, can be accounted for in terms of the ontology of presence – which is necessarily human independent given that for Heidegger, Kant was wrong in saying consciousness is always not of the world itself, but of another form of subjectivity.  For Heidegger though, subjectivity is directed at the world, not at more subjectivity. This is the basic lesson of Husserlian phenomenology. William Earle summarizes this point well in his Objectivity: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology:

Consciousness is nothing but the appearance of reality to some subject. And therefore reality is both in and out of the mind simultaneously; for the mind is related to reality by apprehending it. The mind is therefore not simply related to itself, or to its ideas, or to images of reality, or representations, or signs, or effects of reality. It is related to reality itself.

Coming back to the litmus test of Whitehead, it seems that Heidegger is quite capable of talking about object-object relations in the non-human way in which OOP desires. This can be done through the conception of being as presence, and it can be done on the derivative level that goes from objectivity (presence) –> subjectivity (ready-to-hand) –> objectivity (present-at-hand). In this way, we can talk about objectivity in two separate ways. We can talk about our pre-reflective ontological understanding of the mind-independent reality and we can talk about objectivity reflexively through our linguistic toolkits like science and OOP, which are only possible on the basis of the linguistic coping strategies of the ready-to-hand. So really, as far as I am concerned, Heideggerian phenomenology has stepped out of the Post-Kantian room as well through the conception of being as presence. But Heidegger does not fully step out of the room, because, -rightly- we need to acknowledge the subject of the subject-object model of intentional consciousness, wherein we derive the capacity for subjective reflection on what it means to be a self, or what it means for selves to know themselves and be wise. Aka, philosophy.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Musings on "Object-Oriented Philosophy"

  1. All of that talk of placing human-world relationship as the privileged relationship is nonsense and I have pointed it out on many occasions – it implies that we have a choice to either privilege human standpoint or not and we clearly don’t because we are and always will be human. If Harman wants to wave a magic wand and become a piece of cotton and then come back and tell us what it was like, it’s fine with me, but he can’t and it might take all of his creative might to try to imagine what it would be like to be a piece of cotton burning in the fire, but that’s all it is, imagination, and to try to sell it as some sort of a new philosophical solution to Kant is absurd (and annoying to the highest degree)…

  2. Gary Williams

    That’s an interesting argument about choice. I agree from a phenomenological perspective. This is why I love phenomenology as a philosophical toolkit: it forces you to take seriously your own dealings with the world. Last time I checked, cottonballs have never written books about cottonballs, nor have they had thoughts about themselves, or anything that approaches what we might call a “human stance” on cottonballs. While I will be forced to concede his point if Harman simply wants to say “well, this might not be phenomenologically astute, but my metaphysical system is useful for this and this reason,” ultimately, I think such a system is largely “scholastic”. I don’t think its possible to resurrect metaphysics in this day and age.

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