Tag Archives: speculative realism

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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Defending Heidegger (Again)

Graham Harman, in response to some recent communication and thinking about Heidegger’s relationship to Berkeley, has this to say:

There is obviously something psychologically special about humans in comparison with rocks and perhaps even flowers. No argument from me there. All sorts of fascinating human complexity is not to be found anywhere else. But it does not follow that human psychological peculiarity needs to be built into ontology as a full half of the cosmos.

Here’s a very nice passage from Dominic, which gets to the heart of the dispute I’ve had with a number of Heideggerians in this space over the past year, including both Minds and Brains and Chris Ruth. Only a few days ago did I realize the nature of the mutual misunderstanding, but Dominic gets it right:

“In other words, the question is not so much ‘does the hammer exist when I’m not using it’ (Heidegger would readily affirm that it does) as ‘does the hammer have a relationship to the nail, apart from my intention to use the one to strike the other’?”

Yes, that’s it. In recent days I realized (but perhaps I realized it before, and then forgot) that a number of my Heideggerian critics interpreted me as saying that Heidegger is Berkeley. In other words, when I say that there is nothing in Heidegger about the interaction between two entities when Dasein is not watching, they think I’m claiming that Heidegger is a sort of solipsistic idealist.

Well, he may actually be a bit closer to that than Heideggerians think. But that’s not the heart of my claim, and Dominic does get the heart of my claim: it’s about whether the Dasein/world relation is privileged over the world/world relation. In reviewing Lee Braver’s book in Philosophy Today, it’s what I called the “A7″ thesis (added on to Braver’s other 6 excellently useful anti-realist theses). A7 = “The human-world relation is the center of philosophy, having privileged status over all other relations.” And that’s really the essence of Kant’s Copernican Revolution. It doesn’t matter how much a Kantian insists that things-in-themselves really exist (and not all Kantians are that adamant). What matters is whether philosophy is allowed to treat sun/Mars and raindrop/ocean in the same way as human/tree.

I think Harman and Dominic have nicely clarified a pressing question: does Heidegger’s philosophy allow him to admit that humans interact with the Earth in the same ontological manner as a hammer falling to the ground during an earthquake does? Clearly not, based on standard readings of Heidegger’s ontology. But on my reading, this is indeed allowed but rarely mentioned; why not? Because it’s just common sense, encapsulated by the “natural attitude”, our basic way of understanding the world we live in. Normal people don’t doubt that raindrops over the ocean are having real interactions with each other; they just never bother to question it because it is so firmly rooted in how we understand reality. Indeed, the independence of object-object relations is something we learn in infancy and never forget.

Moreover, Heidegger says in the History of the Concept of Time that Dasein is corporeal. This is common sense. Everyone knows that they have a body and this body is made of “material stuff”. Clearly, the natural attitude understands that corporeal stuff interacts with the ground in the same way that raindrops interact with the ground. On a crude level of analysis then, most people understand that human bodies and the world are on the same ontological plain when it comes to what Harman and friends call “translation”, otherwise known as “bumping into” or “interacting with”. Heidegger doesn’t deny any of this. Indeed, Husserl insisted that the phenomenological reduction doesn’t deny the natural attitude but only temporarily suspends it for investigative purposes. Heidegger rarely comes right out and confirms the natural attitude, but he always implies its truth and never denies it. Why the hangup though? Because Heidegger wasn’t interested in the natural attitude or object-oriented science. In the same way that linguists aren’t interested in anything but language, Heidegger was only interested in the unique properties of the animal-world relationship, more specifically, the human animal-world relationship.

Heidegger was fascinated by animal-world relationship because of several unique properties, including affectivity (finding-oneself) and intentionality (directedness towards). Indeed, he says in the History of the Concept of Time that

A stone never finds itself but is simply present-at-hand. A very primitive unicellular form of life, on the contrary, will already find itself, where this affectivity can be the greatest and darkest dullness, but for all that it is in its structure of being essentially distinct from merely being present-at-hand like a thing.

What Heidegger is talking about here is the self-organizational property of living bodies, that peculiar way of bootstrapping oneself across time into a highly effective dynamic core of homeostatic directedness. As Maturana and Varela put it in The Tree of Knowledge,

What is distinctive about [organisms]…is that their organization is such that their only product is themselves, with no separation between producer and product. The being and doing of an autopoieic unity are inseparable, and this is their specific mode of organization.

So while the cellular organism is made of out the same physical “stuff” as inanimate objects, and thus “translates” in the same way on a fundamental level, the structural/functional properties of self-organization guarantee a unique “biological” phenomenology that is worlds apart from “stone phenomenology”. Furthermore, the addition of language, culture, and technology gives humans a “cultural” or “hermeneutic” phenomenology above and beyond the biological phenomenology that we share with our animal cousins. This is why Heidegger insists that language is the house of being, which constructs our unique “understanding of being” and gives rise to our capacity for ontological inquiry. Indeed, he says

Genuinely and initially, it is the essence of language to first elevate beings into the open as beings. Where there is no language — as with stones, plants, and animals — there is also no openness of beings and thus also no openness of non-beings, un-beings, or emptiness. By first naming objects, language brings beings to word and to appearance.

So it seems like Heidegger comes away unscathed from pejorative accusations of “correlationism”. He was fully capable of talking about the nail interacting with the hammer in the same way as our bodies interact with the hammer, but that just didn’t interest him. He was a phenomenologist after all, and remained one throughout his entire career.

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Speculative Realism: A False "Revolution"?

Graham Harman recently linked to a “conversion post” by Crispin Sartwell that gushes over the “new realist” or “speculative realist” movement, a supposedly “revolutionary development”. Sartwell is apparently excited by speculative realism because “all of these people in some form or another seem actually to believe that there is a world of objects etc out there outside of human consciousness, and that we didn’t make this all up in a narrative, or construct it socially, or impose on it space and times as forms of perception etc: they are finally turning away from the kantian nightmare.”

This narrative of “finally” moving beyond the “Kantian nightmare” is tired and overplayed. Just once I wish people who  are bowled over by the “revolutionary character” of SR would point to a major 20th century philosopher who actually denies that the Earth, moon, and stars exists independently of human perception. They certainly can’t point to Heidegger as a culprit of “strong correlationism. As I have been at pains to argue, early and late Heidegger would both agree that the “earth is real and exists independently of human access with a determinate spatiotemporal existence”. Accordingly, we see a sharp break with Kantian thought as early as the 1920s with Being and Time. Earlier still, William James and American pragmatism had long since broken with the “Kantian nightmare”. So had Husserl. So had Merleau-Ponty, James Gibson, and the whole tradition of ecological philosophy that started in the 70s and transformed into the current anti-Kantian and anti-representationalist tradition of 4EA philosophy.

Indeed, the whole attempt to make Heidegger a scapegoat for “strong correlationism” in order to tell an intellectual narrative about the “revolutionary” character of speculative realism is based on one-sided readings of Heideggerian phenomenology and simple ignorance concerning ecological philosophy as an intellectual movement stemming from phenomenology and pragmatism. Saying that the “world is real” is nothing new. In fact, it’s just common sense. That SRists attempt to launch a “philosophical revolution” in terms of “anti-correlationism” without ever decisively showing who these “strong correlationists” are bespeaks of hastiness and immaturity as a philosophical movement. Revolutions aren’t started by attacking strawmen. Point me to some “strong correlationist” passages in Heidegger and I will accept the “revolution” of speculative realism. Until then, I will be content to watch SR develop a false sense of accomplishment as it proclaims itself as the “new realism”.

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Philosophy as peering

Paul Ennis on contemplative gaze, the purest form of conscious speculation. I concur. The best and most satisfying way to confirm one’s own phenomenological suspicions is to take a good look at the world around you. However, the act of confirmation constitutes the necessity of keeping a philosophical mind towards consciousness itself instead of pretending it isn’t there. Julian Jaynes outlined this nicely in 1976 ( brackets mine):

The most extensive possible solution [to the problem of consciousness] is attractive mostly to physicists. It states that the succession of subjective states that we feel in introspection has a continuity that stretches beyond into a fundamental property of interacting matter. The relationship of consciousness to what we are conscious of is not fundamentally different from the relationship of a tree to the ground in which it is rooted, or even of the gravitational relationship between two celestial bodies. The view was conspicuous in the first quarter of this century. What Alexander called compresence or Whitehead called prehension provided the groundwork of a monism that moved on to a flourishing school called Neo-Realism [now called speculative realism?]. If a piece of chalk is dropped on the lecture table, that interaction of chalk and table is different only in complexity from the perceptions and knowledges that fill our minds. The chalk knows the table just as the table knows the chalk. That is why the chalk stops at the table.

This is something of a caricature of a very subtly worked out position, but it nevertheless reveals that this difficult theory is answering quite the wrong question. We are not trying to explain how interaction with our environment, but rather the particular experience that we have in introspecting. The attractiveness of this kind of neo-realism was really a part of an historical epoch when the astonishing successes of particle physics were being talked of everywhere. The solidity of matter was being dissolveed into mere mathametical relationships in space, and this seemed like the same unphysical quality as the relationship of individuals conscious of each other.

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A question for speculative realism

Mike Johnduff of Working Notes says that speculative realism

…is, in my view, a way of being a better Heideggerian than some Heideggerians. Why? It ends up enriching the Heideggerian analytic where Heideggerians might call the particular investigations in this new field “onticology,” a turn away from ontology or from our prereflective understanding of being being and towards beings. Speculative realism, however, in no way involves this turn back to the ontic, to beings (and, I might add, only a foolish reading of Heidegger would see every turn to the ontic as a step back, and not because Heidegger was tolerant of this, but because the ontological is not more proper in that way: it’s not unlike claiming, appealing to Darwin, that you are more evolved than your dog, when of course all species are the most evolved they are going to be at this moment).

Speculative realism involves, instead, taking the Heideggerian analysis, and then asking, ontologically, the impossible thing: what are these beings in their being, when we don’t take being as anything that originates from our stance upon beings. It means, to put it another way, deconstructing (or at least being clearer about) all that Heidegger did (intentionally and, especially, not) to link Dasein to the human, and being to a history that man has privileged insight into. The result is a knowledge of objects with the prereflective understanding of man subtracted: the prereflection is among beings, purely, if I can put it that way.

My question is simple: is not a human-subtracted knowledge of objects simply naturalistic science as we currently understand it? Does not a naturalistic description suffice for knowing how things are when we are not looking? I don’t understand how a human-subtracted knowledge of objects – an investigation into the “being of beings” – could be anything but an investigation into ontic properties. If we are “trying to talk about what the bridge is when you walk away from it” – would not a physical-engineering model be the best mode of discourse for doing so? If you want to subtract humanity, you need to lose metaphor and work with what physicists – the ultimate onticologists – have been using for years: mathematical equations. Vernacular language is simply too infused with human-centered metaphor to ever be useful in talking about how bridges are when no one is looking. So while I agree that onticology is not a priori a materialistic ontology, nevertheless, mathematical-physical discourse is arguably more useful than philosophical language when it comes to discussing bridges. Afterall, to paraphrase Dretske, engineering discourse will actually allow you to construct a bridge whereas object-oriented “philosophy” will not. Which one then is more truly object-centered?

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