Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Heidegger
The opening of Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) still rings true today. “What is phenomenology? It may seem strange that this question has still to be asked half a century after the first works of Husserl. The fact remains that it has by no means been answered.” The only different today is the “half a century”; it has now been well over a century since the first works of Husserl and over seventy years since Merleau-Ponty wrote those words. The fact remains that the question has by no means been answered. Merleau-Ponty gave a response, but that response is not a final answer. It is itself open to interpretation, as indicated by the different ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s own thought changed over time and the different ways his thought has been received in contexts like neurophenomenology and ecophenomenology.
What is phenomenology? On one hand, it seems like everybody has their own idiosyncratic definition of phenomenology, which does whatever work you want it to do, like Humpty Dumpty saying that he pays words extra to do what he wants. In that sense, it means almost anything. On the other hand, insofar as there is agreement about what phenomenology is, it is subjected to a rather crude leveling that turns it into a synonym for “study of experience,” thus equivocating between a wide variety of theories and methods in empiricism, pragmatism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and philosophy of mind. Between Humpty Dumpty phenomenology and crudely leveled phenomenology, the practice of phenomenology is exceptionally loose. Some looseness can be good, facilitating openness to the mystery of what shows itself. However, too much looseness and phenomenology loses its perspicacity. You could blame the excessive looseness on some of the popular (mis)interpreters of figures like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (pace Evan Thompson and David Abram). The issue is deeper than that though. Part of the problem is that phenomenology has had conflicting meanings throughout its entire history. Because people do not know this history, they are doomed to repeatedly dilute phenomenology in a sea of equivocations. What, then, is phenomenology? Continue reading
What’s with all the philosophical hokey-pokey? I hear a lot about putting some things in and taking some things out and turning around, so much turning around. How many turns have there been in the last hundred years? Remember the linguistic turn in philosophy? Then Habermas argued for some kind of pragmatic turn. In the philosophy of religion a few folks tried to initiate a participatory turn, and of course, the ontological turn has been getting some attention lately. Has anybody really thought through all of this turning? Is the turning trope a handy substitute for thinking? Is the philosophical tradition a boat that needs to be turned around lest it shipwreck on the shores of existence? I would prefer the shipwreck. Is it a game where everybody gets to take a turn so that nobody feels left out? I’m not sure if such a game is worth playing. As everybody is taking their turn, how many realize that they are under the spell of Heidegger’s Kehre? Among so much hokey-pokey, Heidegger was the only one to turn to the turning of the turn, like an existential DJ spinning on the turntables of Being.
The last month has been a busy one. I’ve graded roughly 400 pages of student papers, and I’ve given about 60 hours of lectures. I haven’t spent much time writing, and I feel good about that. Well, I suppose I’ve done some writing, if you count lecture notes, syllabi, and emails to students. To adapt a phrase from Mick Jagger, it’s only teaching, but I like it. This is what I do.
I consider myself a teacher far more than I would consider myself a writer. Along those lines, I feel an affinity with Heidegger: my work is not to write, but to teach, where teaching is understood not as advising or instructing (belehren) but as a practice of letting learn (lernen lassen). Foucault is also a companion in that regard. I often recall his statement that he is a teacher and not a writer or a public intellectual or a philosopher. This isn’t to say that being a teacher precludes writing. Heidegger and Foucault wrote quite a lot. But they were not writers.
I would say that teaching is more difficult than writing. Indeed, teaching is even more difficult than learning, since the teacher has to learn how to let students learn. The teacher has to be more teachable than the students. I feel like that’s almost verbatim from one of my favorite Heidegger books: What is Called Thinking? Not incidentally, that book is a series of lectures, like so many of Heidegger’s works.
I’m sure there are some possible rebuttals to what I’m saying here. Nonetheless, I simply can’t shake some of my Heideggerian convictions… after so much walking along the path, still coming into the nearness of distance… Hier stehe, ich kann nicht anders.
I’ve been reading and enjoying Graham Harman’s new book, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Zero Books, 2012). This is a great book, regardless of whether you already know the general outline of Harman’s philosophy and/or have any interest in Lovecraft.
At the very least, I would recommend the book for Harman’s fun and illuminating uses of “ruination,” whereby he shows what is most effective in a sentence or phrase by juxtaposing the original version with alternative (ruined) versions of the passage.
Harman’s proclivity for sincerity comes through in the style and the content of the work, as does his humor. Consider the comment he makes when reflecting on Hume, “the patron saint of the philosophical debunker”: “though debunking has its uses, the clearing away of rubbish is a secondary chore best done once per week” (57-58).
A guiding analogy for the book: As Hölderlin is to Heidegger and subsequent continental thought, Lovecraft is to Harman and weird realisms, e.g., object-oriented philosophy. Whether Lovecraft will or should become a philosophical staple, I don’t know. In any case, I very much like the idea that what might seem to be merely pulp fiction is here brought to a philosophical plane with sincerity and humor. Even more than that, it’s fascinating (and horrifying) to get a sense of the strange realities that Lovecraft has in store for philosophy.
Reality itself is weird because reality itself is incommensurable with any attempt to represent or measure it. Lovecraft is aware of this difficulty to an exemplary degree, and through his assistance we may be able to learn about how to say something without saying it — or in philosophical terms, how to love wisdom without having it. When it comes to grasping reality, illusion and innuendo are the best we can do. (51)
Following the previous installment in this series, this episode continues the elaboration of Han Jonas’ updated version of Aristotle in a philosophy that integrates the insights of Whitehead and Heidegger. In particular, it’s time to talk about degrees of freedom and the uniqueness of humans. Let’s begin by thinking with Jonas’ philosophical biology.
While animals have perception and some sort of capacity to form images or tools, they apply their potential for merely vital, practical ends (Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life , 158). However, image-making in its proper sense is only achieved in the new level of freedom attained by humans (170). To be able to make an image entails the ability to behold an image. This means one must be capable of discerning differences between the image, imagined, and the material substratum of the image. Nonhuman animals cannot perceive mere likeness, and thus cannot distinguish between the image, the imagined, and the material substratum. It can see something as other or the same, but not similar. Thus, animals can imagine in the limited sense of bringing together images, but these images are bound up with sensation.
In human beings, the image of a thing is understood as a separate presence. It necessarily follows, then, that humans can alter and make images, for they see them as separate things. In the mind of human beings, form becomes completely separable from matter. Humans have more control over form because they understand form by itself, but this means humans—with metabolizing bodies—also experience great distances through their apprehension of form by itself.
The human understanding of form is also evident in the human capacity for naming—that is, ordering the world according to the general forms of things. “The generality of the name is the generality of the image” (173). Humans can know that a thing is “this” and not “that” by comparing the forms of things ordered in naming. The new degree of freedom witnessed in human beings is what makes possible the experience of theoretical and practical truth.
Like Aristotle, Jonas argues that the ascending degrees of freedom inherent in organism and the becoming of natural bodies in general might have its origins in some divine act (275). Ultimately, however, Jonas argues that the mystery of origins is closed to us (3). The divine act Jonas imagines is the original giving up of the divine essence to the venture of becoming and experience. This venture keeps matter oscillating between forms. Somehow form gains freedom from matter as organic life begins to stir. As form gains freedom in higher organisms, form comes to experience its own form and divinity.
The divine venture is undertaken for the sake of the identity of divine form; all becoming is the preservation of divine form. The freedom of human beings allows form to be completely itself. Humans can neglect the call issuing from freedom, forget the origin of truth, and forget the divine venture. Indeed, humans are given the precarious task of completing the image of divinity, for better or worse.
Jonas’ interpretation of human freedom relies upon the distinctions between matter, life, and mind (intellect) set forth by Aristotle, but updated with a blend of Heideggerian existential phenomenology and Whiteheadian panexperientialism. Both Aristotle and Jonas begin their investigations with a view to their contemporaries and current opinions about their questioned subject matter. The opinions inherited by each philosopher provide the groundwork upon which they develop their arguments and terminology. Their own accounts attempt to get beyond whatever impasses are preventing a complete understanding of the subject matter. Aristotle tries to get beyond the impasses of the theories of the natural scientists and mathematicians of his day with his account of an intertwined matter and form of the complete, independent thing. Jonas tries to get beyond impasses concerning the relationship between mind and life with his existential interpretation of biological facts, which discloses the reciprocal participation of organism in mind and mind in organism.
For both Aristotle and Jonas, any living thing—plants, animals, and humans—stays itself and maintains its form by metabolizing, acting upon and being acted upon by the things in its surrounding world. Humans have a unique degree of freedom through which we have a particularly great abundance of things in our world, not the least of which are images. If form is the work of divinity, human imagination and contemplation share in divine activity, and indeed, all becoming is an ongoing divine venture. But that’s a big if.
One of the exciting things happening in object-oriented philosophy is a synthesis of Whiteheadian and Heideggerian insights, namely, 1) Whitehead’s pan-experientialist concept of feeling or prehension, which deals a severe blow to human exceptionalism, and 2) Heidegger’s concept of the retreat or withdrawal (Entzug) of things.
It’s a mutually beneficial synthesis: Whitehead helps avoid the anthropocentrism of Heidegger’s philosophy, for which nonhumans are either poor in world or worldless; and Heidegger helps avoid the relationalism of Whitehead’s philosophy, for which individual entities do not harbor any actuality withdrawn from experience.
Heideggerians and Whiteheadians push back. Heideggerians might argue that Heidegger isn’t entirely anthropocentric (maybe anthropocosmic instead), and Whiteheadians can claim that Whitehead honors the non-relational (i.e., non-experiential) dimension of actuality. Those claims are not without their merit, as indicated by a recent post by Matt Segall in defense Whitehead’s objects (contra Graham Harman and OOO). However, at the end of the day, it seems pretty clear to me: Heidegger’s thought is anthropocentric, and Whitehead’s is relationalist.
Regarding Whitehead, it’s important to clarify that he is indeed an object-oriented thinker. He posits discrete individual entities (actual occasions) as the basic units of existence (see his “ontological principle”). In this sense, Whitehead is similar to Latour, but he is unlike Bergson and Deleuze, who tend to think of individual entities as products of an underlying continuity.
Is Whitehead object-oriented? Yes. Does a Whiteheadian object have a non-relational dimension? No. Whitehead’s individuals are experiential through and through, experiencing and experienced, private and public, making actual while decisively cutting away (and negatively prehending, which is a kind of relating).
If there’s a non-relational dimension in Whitehead’s objects, it is the sundering of all relationality that takes place in the creativity of pure becoming, but such a fountain of creativity would amount to a monistic undermining of the plurality of objects. Even aside from the pluralism/monism problem, a non-relational dimension of objects would be a dimension that is “void of subjective experience,” a “vacuous actuality” that Whitehead denounces (Process and Reality, 167).
I first read Whitehead a little more than 11 years ago (thanks, Pete Gunter!), and I liked his philosophy from the start. Aside from the specifics of the debate regarding the new Heidegger-Whitehead synthesis, I’m just happy to see that Whitehead’s name is making its way into more and more philosophical discussions.