Tag Archives: Graham Harman

Steven Crowell defending phenomenology from the critique of Speculative Realism

From figure/ground interview

Let’s get technical. In one of his books, Guerrilla Metaphysics, Graham Harman, one of the co-founders of the philosophical movement known as Speculative Realism, makes a powerful critique of phenomenology. First, he identifies some inherent contradictions: “The cumulative lesson of this book so far is that phenomenology is caught at the midpoint of two intersections: (1) On the one hand, we deal only with objects, since sheer formless sense data are never encountered; on the other hand, an “objects-only” world could not be tangible or experienceable in any way, since objects always elude us. (2) On the one hand, phenomena are united with our consciousness in a single intentional act, while on the other hand they are clearly separate, since they fascinate us as end points of awareness rather then melting indistinguishably into us.” Second, he accuses phenomenology of remaining a “philosophy of access” and neglecting to recognize what his colleague Levi R. Bryant has called a “Democracy of Objects.” Harman writes: “Of any philosophy we encounter, it can be asked whether it has anything at all to tell us about the impact of inanimate objects upon one another, apart from any human awareness of this fact. If the answer is “yes,” then we have a philosophy of objects. This does not require a model of solid cinder blocks existing in a vacuum without context, but only a standpoint equally capable of treating human and inhuman entities on an equal footing. If the answer is “no,” then we have the philosophy of access, which for all practical purposes is idealism, even if no explicit denial is made of a world outside of human cognition.” What do you make of Harman’s critique of phenomenology and his new brand of realism?

Having not read this book (though a very good grad student in the English department who was taking my phenomenology seminar introduced me to some of its ideas), I don’t think I can comment responsibly on it, but the characterization of phenomenology seems insensitive to the crucial distinction between transcendental-phenomenological idealism and metaphysical or subjective idealism. In simplest terms: I reject the idea that phenomenology does not give us the world as it is. It is indeed a “philosophy of access,” but it is access to the world as it is. And I would also argue that it is a standpoint “equally capable of treating human and inhuman entities on an equal footing,” if by “equal footing” one means: attending to the things themselves, not setting up one entity as the measure of all the others, but letting entities show themselves as they are. However, I find the idea that one could do this without any concern for “access,” in a broad sense, very naive. For instance, it seems plausible to say that physics tells us about “the impact of inanimate objects upon one another, apart from any human awareness of this fact,” but presumably this is not what the author means. There are the standard examples from quantum mechanics about the influence of the observer, and the like. But beyond that, there is the fact that physics is a theory and a set of practices which provide normative conditions that allow for distinctions to be made between genuine interactions and mere “artefacts” of one’s standpoint, etc. Do these theories and practices count as a mode of “awareness”? If so, then physics must still be too idealistic. But I doubt that any scientific or philosophical position is conceivable that does not involve theories and practices that establish such normative conditions, and if that is so, then Speculative Realism will also involve some reference to conditions of our “awareness” of the objects it references. Transcendental phenomenology strives to do justice to this fact, and if that is a kind of “idealism,” it is one I can live with. As Husserl pointed out, the “transcendental subject” is not the “human being” as this is envisioned in the question, and I would argue that the same holds for Heidegger’s position. I am not impressed by positions that try to circumvent this point by appeal to primordial “events” or to a kind of post-humanism that most often merely borrows – very selectively – from biology and the like to answer philosophical questions. One does not need to make a fetish out of method to believe that certain questions need to be approached differently than others; in particular, philosophical questions have a reference to access built into them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As for a “democracy of objects,” where does the “subject” fit in? If it is just another object, then we have lost our grip on the distinction.

I think Crowell presents a very nice reply to the critique Speculative realists usually bring to “philosophies of access”. Do yourself a favor and read the full interview (although I disagree with his critique of information processing, and some of the things he says about naturalism are a little disappointing).

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Some thoughts on Graham Harman, "Lavalampy materialism", and Deleuzian "undermining"

Recently, Graham Harman and friends have been unfairly criticizing Deleuze for holding positions that he never held. In his recent article in The Speculative Turn, Harman cites Deleuze is as the arch-example of an “underminer” i.e. someone who eradicates or “undermines” objects in favor of some kind of primordial process or undifferentiated goo. The metaphor Harman is working with is that Deleuze goes “underneath” objects and says that they are “nothing more than the derivative actualization of a deeper reality—one that is more diverse than a lump, but also more continuous than specific horses, rocks, armies, and trees.” Accordingly, Harman says that

Undermining occurs if we say that ‘at bottom, all is one’ and that individual objects are derivative of this deeper primal whole. It happens if we say that the process of individuation matters more than the autonomy of fully formed individuals. It also happens when we say that the nature of reality is ‘becoming’ rather than being, with individuals just a transient consolidation of wilder energies that have already moved elsewhere as soon as we focus on specific entities. There is undermining if we appeal to a pre-objective topology deeper than actuality, or if we insist that the object is reducible to a long history that must be reconstructed from masses of archival documents.

This whole idea of undermining is thus leveled at Deleuze with the intention of making fun of his metaphysics of objects, of pointing out his apparently childish emphasis on flows and processes at the expense of stability. Harman and friends seem gratuitously adept at constructing strawmen of their philosophical opponents. Having just taken a grad seminar with John Protevi on A Thousand Plateaus, I can say confidently that Harman and friends are painting a ludicrously simplistic picture of an incredibly nuanced and sophisticated metaphysical position. To completely dismiss Deleuze for being “lavalampy materialism” is completely childish. Lavalamps? Seriously? That’s a pathetically immature way of characterizing a serious philosophical giant such as Deleuze. Harman and friends want you to think that Deleuze is all about flow flow flow. But If there is one thing I took away from Protevi’s class, it’s that this is  a completely wrong reading of Deleuze. Deleuze never reduced all of reality to pure process or flow. Not at all. His ontology is one of flows and breaks.

To think that for Deleuze an object is somehow “unreal” or “derivative” is to completely misunderstand his concept of stratification and destratification. As Deleuze says in “The Geology of Morals”, “Strata are Layers, Belts. They consist of giving form to matters, of imprisoning intensities or locking singularities into systems of resonance and redundancy, or producing upon the body of the earth molecules large and small and organizing them into molar aggregates” (40). And being a concrete thinker, Deleuze immediately gives an empirical example of stratification:

In a geological stratum, for example, the first articulation is the process of “sedimentation,” which deposits units of cyclic sediment according to a statistical order: flysch, with its succession of sandstone and schist. The second articulation is the “folding” that sets up a stable functional structure and effects the passage from sediment to sedimentary rock. (41)

Does that sound like lavalamps and wishy-washy goo? No! While, yes, Deleuze did emphasize flows and intensive processes, he never did this at the expense of stable resonances, stratifications, and actual organizations. Protevi emphasized over and over again that many Continental thinkers make the mistake of thinking Deleuze was all about flow flow flow. This is a shallow and quick reading. Deleuze always emphasized both flows and breaks, never one at the expense of the other. And it would also be a mistake to read Deleuze as saying that stratifications are somehow less real than the underlying intensive processes. Strata are fully real insofar as they have affects on other bodies. And strata have all the autonomy as Harman’s withdrawn objects. And, yes, in some sense Deleuze saw fully autonomous objects as being limit cases rather than full fledged realities. But this is obviously true and not at all incompatible with Harman’s position since even Harman agrees that objects aren’t eternal: they are routinely destroyed and come into and out of being, only being semiautonomous from the rest of reality. A rock, e.g., while seemingly stable to us humans, would look like a fluid flow to the eyes of a creature with a metabolism on the geological timescale.

But, in my opinion, Deleuzian metaphysics is superior to OOO in that it has more explanatory power. What does OOO explain? What phenomena does it make more clear? What data does it synthesize? What predictions does it make? What errors does it correct in previous systems? What grounds does it give for explaining the reality around us? In my opinion, the rich structure of Deleuzian metaphysics has far more explanatory power than OOO.

Take the example of crystallization. First, you have a supersaturated solution. Then you have the process of nucleation and the subsequent crystal growth which actualizes out of the potentiality of the supersaturated solution. We can explain this in terms of Deleuze’s metaphysics.* The supersaturated solution is undifferentiated yet its Virtual field contains the possibility of crystal actualization. When a singularity crosses a threshold, the Virtual possibility of crystallization actualizes and a process of stratification/actualization occurs wherein a line of flight is selected out of the virtual phasespace and novel strata/organizations are formed through immanent processes of organization.

This is a clearcut example of Deleuzian metaphyiscs at work. How would OOO make sense of the process of cystallization? Well, as I see it, it would be forced to say that, on some level, the supersaturated solution is itself a withdrawn object, or composed of withdrawn objects. And somehow the process of nucleation is a matter of a withdrawn solution-object transforming into the withdrawn object that is the newly formed crystal. Do you see the problem here? Because OOO is forced to say that “it is objects all the way down”, it is unable to account for the undifferentiated solution qua undifferentiated solution. This is why you need a process philosophy that includes the ontological register of intensive flow. The most parsimonious and scientifically respectable explanation of the process of crystallization must include the intensive level in addition to the Virtual realm, which accounts for the ready-possibility of the supersaturated field to nucleate. I am unclear on how OOO would explain this example. Saying it’s “objects all the way down” seems decidedly unexplanatory, especially in the context of “things” like solutions.

Harman and friends will likely respond by saying that the supersaturated solution is itself composed on many tiny withdrawn objects, since they put forward an infinite regress. But at some point, you lose the explanatory power of the term object when you apply it to everything. This is why OOO is only partially complete as an ontology. I agree that on some level objects must be considered stable and semiautonomous. But this stability needs to be understood at the proper scale, spatially and temporally. Which is why process philosophies are so helpful, since they can capture both change and stability, flows and breaks, intensive processes and stable object-resonances.

I hope this post has cleared up some misconceptions about Deleuzian metaphysics. Harman and friends would be well-off if they stopped their ridiculous discussion of lavalumps and wishy-washy goo. A careful reading of Deleuze obviates any such misguided reading of flow at the expense of stability. As Deleuze says, “Saying stratified is not the worst that can happen.”

*EDIT: when I say that Deleuzian metaphysics can explain phenomena like crystallization, I do not mean “scientific explanation”. What I mean is that Deleuzian metaphysics can give an account of the conditions for the possibility of the phenomena, which is a metaphysical explanation rather than a scientific explanation. My answer to Morton’s question of “…what does the Deleuzian description add that I can’t simply see with my own eyes, aided by a decent chemistry textbook?…” is as follows: The Deleuzian account is not meant to supercede or replace scientific explanation. It is meant to give science an underlying metaphysics to account for the conditions of possibility for the phenomena it studies that does not invoke higher beings or transcendental forms. It does this not in terms of a Hylomorphic or Spiritualistic metaphysics, but rather, a metaphysics of immanence compatible with naturalistic monism (the idea that there are no supernatural events or processes). Metaphysics, as I understand it then, it meant to give ontological flesh to the scientific models such as dynamic systems models that actually do talk about phasespaces and singularities. What is the ontological register of the phasespace? Does it “really” exist? Deleuze can help answer these questions.


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Quick response to Graham Harman's comment

If you haven’t noticed, Graham Harman has been attacking Metzinger’s theory of consciousness for some time now. Although I do not totally agree with everything Metzinger has to say (he is an internalist whereas I am an externalist), I do agree with him that the self is not an object, but rather, a function. It is an operation rather than a thing or repository. Accordingly, over at Larval Subjects, I said:

Now, you can take issue with functionalism as an explanation of mind, but Metzinger is only taking it to its logical conclusion, so if you are going to fault him on this point, then you will need to also confront the huge literature defending functionalist explanations of the mind e.g. Global workspace theory, Dennettian multiple-drafts theory, etc.

In response, Graham Harman had this to say:

Nonsense. I can just as easily say “Metzinger will need to confront the huge literature defending substance e.g., Aristotle, Suárez, Leibniz etc.” And Metzinger doesn’t do this. Nor does he need to, especially. He makes a philosophical argument for why the self isn’t a thing, and it’s a rather feeble argument, one that can be dispatched in a few pages. You can’t send people to the library every time they corner you philosophically.

Harman doesn’t seem to realize that Metzinger is not the only one to present the “feeble” argument that the self is not a thing, but rather, a function. Julian Jaynes said the same thing. So has William James, Daniel Dennett, Bernard Baars, Jesse Prinz, Robert van Gulick, David Armstrong, William Lycan, just to name a few (out of dozens). Moreover, there are thousands of articles on Global Workspace Theory and Multiple Drafts theory, which Metzinger takes up and modifies in terms of his functionalist phenomenal self-model theory. Is Harman really that naive to think that he can “dispatch” decades of rigorous argumentation and scientific theorization in a few pages? Has Harman even read the necessary background literature to adequately critique functionalism as a theory of mind? Has he ever read Daniel Dennett? Or Bernard Baars? Does Harman realize that there are thousands of articles published in the field of consciousness studies every year? I find it humorous that Harman thinks he is competent enough to dismiss 30 years of functionalist theorizing as “feeble” when he doesn’t even have a detailed account of the mind, except to say that the mind is an object. They even have working computer models of consciousness as a function. Does Harman even have a competing theory of consciousness? Does he even have a working counter-definition of consciousness? Or any concrete critique of Metzinger’s testable claims about how consciousness functions? What is Harman contributing to the field? Does he realize that people like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have been demolishing the idea that the self is literally an object for twenty years? Where does Harman get off feeling intellectually superior to Metzinger? Does he really think he has “cornered” functionalism as a theory of consciousness? Metzinger has at least made a concrete contribution towards investigating the hard issues related to mind and consciousness. Harman is stuck in the clouds, thinking that discussions of Leibniz and substance are actually relevant to contemporary models and explanations of consciousness and cognition. Until Harman is willing to actually read the literature, develop a working counter model of consciousness, or step outside his comfort zone of pure philosophy, I won’t take his critiques of Metzinger very seriously. If you want to read a real critique of functionalism, read someone like Ned Block or Thomas Nagel.


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Possible Congruence of Harman's Withdrawal Thesis with Ecological Science?

For the longest time I’ve had trouble understanding Graham Harman‘s radical thesis of withdrawal. What does it mean for two entities to “withdraw” from each other as they interact? How can we reconcile this idea with complete causal closure? Doesn’t gravity, for example, affect an apple through-and-through? It wasn’t until I read the following passage from Varela and Maturana’s interesting little book, The Tree of Knowledge (1987), that I made sense of it as a general ontological requirement.

Ontogeny is the history of structural changes in a particular living being. In this history each living being begins with an initial structure. This structure conditions the course of its interactions and restricts the structural changes that the interactions may trigger in it. At the same time, it is born in a particular place, in a medium that constitutes the ambience in which it emerges and in which it interacts. This ambience appears to have a structural dynamics of its own, operationally distinct from the living being. This is a crucial point. As observers, we have distinguished the living system as a unity from its background and have characterized it as a definite organization. We have thus distinguished two structures that are going to be considered operationally independent of each other: living being and environment. Between them there is a necessary structural congruence (or the unity disappears). In the interactions between the living being and the environment within this structural congruence, the perturbations of the environment do not determine what happens to the living being; rather, it is the structure  of the living being that determines what change occurs in it. This interaction is not instructive, for it does not determine what its effects are going to be. Therefore, we have used the expression “to trigger” an effect. In this way we refer to the fact that the changes that result from the interaction are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed sysem. The same holds true for the environment: the living being is a source of perturbations and not of instructions.

Now, at this point the reader may be thinking that all this sounds too complicated and that it is unique to living beings. To be exact, as in the case of reproduction, this is not a phenomenon unique to living beings. It takes place in all interactions. And if we do not see it in all its generality, it becomes a source of confusion. (p. 96)

Basically, Varela and Maturana are saying that we can only think about objects in terms of unities that are structurally determined in their organization. All changes in a system are changes of structure, which can be the result of intrinsic structural dynamics or triggered by interactions with everything else. Moreover, Varela and Maturana claim that this feature of structural unification undergoing change applies to  the scientific description of all interactions because otherwise we couldn’t make sense of how and why object unities breakdown (a car is the most obvious example).

While I might be mistaken, this sounds remarkable like Harman’s thesis of objects withdrawing from each other as they interact. Harman seems to claim that every object-object interaction is characterized by each object retaining some “inner core” or “subterranean essence” while nevertheless interacting or “translating” on a “sensuous” level. I’m a visual thinker, so I always had trouble conceptualizing how this process of withdrawal works. But now I think my problem was with the specific term withdrawal, which is actually a misnomer if I am understanding Harman, Varela, and Maturana right. From what I gather, a better description of object-object interaction might go as follows: when an object interacts with another object, both objects need to retain their internal structural unity during the interaction in order for it to be considered an object-object perturbation or “translation”. If there was not a retention of unified structure, we wouldn’t be able to talk about the interaction in terms of two, separately organized unities. Without a separation of unitary structure (i.e without being “operationally distinct”), the structural changes become merely changes of the state of one system rather than changes as a result of the perturbation or translation between different objects. Varela and Maturana also point out that another possibility of object-object interaction is destruction, whereby one object destroys the organization of the unity of another.

One could say that my eyes have now been opened to the relevance of object-oriented philosophy to developments in ecologically oriented cognitive science. I still have trouble with how Harman argues for his thesis, but now that I have at least “translated” it into a familiar conceptual domain, I think I can finally accept some kind of generality of withdrawal for all possible object-object interactions. There’s gotta be a better metaphor than withdrawal though. It’s far too “spooky” for my likening. I’m also not convinced that this was Heidegger’s greatest lesson. But like I said, my eyes are now open to new possibilities of relevance.


In response to my comment about Heidegger’s greatest lesson, Harman asks

Well what on earth are the other candidates?

My reply:

One of Heidegger’s greatest lessons was his distinction between the phenomenon and the semblance. In my mind, this was a realist “upgrade” to Husserl’s transcendental reduction. In his surrounding lectures and in BT, Heidegger critiques Husserl’s transcendental reduction for missing the original phenomenon to be described: our experience as embodied entities living on a physical earth, but “worlded” in terms of the categorial (i.e. socially constructed) intuition. Husserl accepted the metaphysics of the “natural attitude” but bracketed realist questions from the ultimate reduction for sake of Cartesian “certainty” and wanting to achieve “apodicticity” . Heidegger recognized the irony (and ultimate futility) of using Cartesian standards of certainty for the investigation of something as concrete as lived experience. This is why he ultimately endorsed a hermeneutic phenomenology that started from within the messy circle of lived experience, rather than from eidetically purified descriptions of transcendental correlation. By introducing the concept of “semblance” into phenomenology, Heidegger provided a means to capture by formal indication the natural attitude’s acceptance of empirical realism without suffering from internal inconsistency (since he can show that his opponents’ positions stand upon the strength of unquestioned assumptions). Husserl would have never said things like:

With circumspective interpretation, the way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself, or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of being (SZ 150).

Heidegger is talking about situations like when we see a stick in the grass as a snake or make perceptual mistakes wherein we radically misinterpret the given phenomenon. Fool’s gold is good example. Such language was phenomenological heresy for Husserl, which is why he thought Heidegger was trying to naturalize consciousness like some sort of objective anthropologist.  But by allowing realist concepts like the semblance into his methodology, Heidegger was able to account for the full spectrum of human experience, such as  when “The present-at-hand, as Dasein encounters it, can, as it were, assault Dasein’s Being; natural events, for instance, can break in upon us and destroy us” (SZ 152). Our experience with earthquakes, volcanoes, animals, etc. shows us that there is indeed an objective reality “out there”, ready to stand in our way or assist us (as with the sun, the wind, and the sea). If some hapless fool interpreted an earthquake as a simulation or dream, Heidegger would say that he was experiencing a semblance of the earthquake, not the genuine phenomenon of the earthquake as it is “in itself”. Indeed,”the fact that Reality is ontologically grounded in the Being of Dasein, does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists, can the Real be as that which in itself it is” (SZ 212). Surely this is a vast improvement over Husserl’s phenomenological method and deserves attention as a philosophical methodology.


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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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