Tag Archives: object-oriented philosophy

Notes on Immaterialism

A good theory must ultimately draw distinctions between different kinds of beings. However, it must earn these distinctions rather than smuggling them in beforehand, as occurs frequently in the a priori modern split between human beings on one side and everything else on the other (see Latour 1993 [We Have Never Been Modern]). This answers the question of why an object-oriented approach is desirable: a good philosophical theory should begin by excluding nothing. And as for those social theories that claim to avoid philosophy altogether, they invariably offer mediocre philosophies shrouded in the alibi of neutral empirical fieldwork. (Harman, Immaterialism, p. 4)

In Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Polity Press, 2016), Graham Harman applies his object-oriented philosophy to social objects. The book functions as “a compact list of the first principles of object-oriented social theory, which I have also called ‘immaterialism’” (126). This presentation of an object-oriented social theory includes a detailed analysis of one particular social object, the Dutch East India Company. Someone might think that this is just another book of object-oriented philosophy, tracing out the same principles that Harman articulates elsewhere. In some sense that’s true, but there’s much more going on than that. In what follows, I briefly sketch some key contributions that this book makes to the ongoing development of object-oriented philosophy. Continue reading

Weird Realism: Harman and Lovecraft

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)

Objects: Between Whitehead and Heidegger

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.

(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 3: Life After Heidegger and Whitehead

In the earlier parts of this Aristotelian exposition, we covered Aristotle’s conception of nature and the thinghood of things, and then moved on to talk about Aristotle’s conception of life and soul.  In this episode, I want to consider what an Aristotelian philosophy could look like if it was updated in a context that took the works of Heidegger and Whitehead into account.  Object-oriented philosophy would be a good example, but I want to look back a little earlier to the works of one of Heidegger’s students, Hans Jonas, specifically in light of The Phenomenon of Life, wherein Jonas presents a phenomenological investigation into life, which “offers an ‘existential’ interpretation of biological facts” (p. xxiii).  That is, he describes the facts established by the natural sciences and interprets them according to the individual existence of the things named by the facts.  Although the title sounds like a Teilhard allusion, and Jonas explicitly refers to his similarity to Teilhard’s panpsychism, Jonas prefers Whitehead’s philosophy of the “feeling” of actuality, which is “on a considerably higher philosophical plane” than Teilhard (25n2).

Jonas, like Aristotle, supposes a sort of hierarchy from the activity of matter to that of mind.  However, Jonas attempts to leave behind the anthropocentricism of modern idealist and existential philosophies and the materialism and epiphenomenalism that hold sway over the natural sciences.  The first part of our explication of Jonas’ hypothesis (that the organic prefigures mind, which still remains part of the organic) will discuss the conception of organism that he articulates in the light of modern science.  From there, we will discuss the conception of mind that Jonas articulates.

Humans first interpreted the nature of things as being infused with life or spirit.  Animism and hylozoism are terms often used to describe the panpsychic worldviews of early humanity.  For early humanity, spirit was everywhere, even with matter (7).  However, this vitalistic monism did not hold sway for long.  Various articulations of dualism held sway for some of the late ancient period until a completely mechanistic view of the world prevails in modernity.  Modern cosmology places man in a mechanistic, inanimate universe, which accords not with any teleology, but with the laws of mechanical inertia.  Jonas argues that this movement from a vitalistic monism to a mechanistic monism is the result of the long ascendance of dualism out of the confrontation between early animist-vitalists and the fact of death.  We can see this dualism at work in the Orphic formula somasema, the body—a tomb, which held sway over many Gnostic and Christian interpretations of nature (13).

Dualism culminates in Cartesian ontology, wherein the organism is taken for a mere occurrence of an unfeeling, unwilling, res extensa (21).  Eventually, even the cognitive function of man is taken as a mere epiphenomena arising out of lifeless matter (88).  Materialism (or epiphenomenalism) and the aforementioned dualisms are accompanied by nihilism, wherein man alone is free and thinks in an uncaring, unknowing, indifferent nature (213).  However, natural bodies are not merely extended!  Humanity is not alone in its freedom.  If we attend to the self-showing of an organism, we see a thing that stays alive by continually exchanging its material, in short, metabolizing.  The organism has an identity apart from, though not independent of, its extended material.  The fact of life existentially interpreted reveals the coincidence of an organic body’s outward presence to the world with its freedom, self-identity, and finality (17-19).

Jonas interprets the biological fact of metabolism as an activity of the organism that maintains its self-identity and transcendence (75).  The constant exchange of material between the organism and its environment is indicative of the organism’s activity for its own sake.  Jonas claims that even lifeless material maintains itself, although with no distinction between self and other.  Matter is always already informed, ceaselessly adapting to different forms.  Similarly, continually appropriating various materials, the organism tries to maintain its form and stay itself.  Thus, with the organism we see a freedom of form from its material accompanied by a need to maintain its form as apart from matter.

The degrees of freedom of form vary with respect to different organisms.  For instance, plants generally have less organic freedom than animals, since their metabolic activity involves whatever material is immediately present to their boundaries.  The world is always acting upon the plant directly and vice versa.  For Jonas, plants do not have a formed world in the proper sense (which sounds like a very Heideggerian statement).  There is an atmospheric irritability upon the boundaries of the plant.  However, this foreign irritability affecting the plant has not yet opened a world out there.  The distinction between self and environing world is only germinal in plants (103).

With the animal kingdom, a higher degree of needful freedom is attained.  Animals, like plants, metabolize and exchange material with the environment to maintain their identity.  However, animals also exhibit motility, perception, and emotion (99).  The ability to perceive opens up the self-world distinction.  In plants, the world is what is directly affective.  With perception, which is necessarily accompanied by motility and emotion, the world is more “there” as something that must be surmounted and affected through distance.  Animal life is characterized by the presence of distance.  This distance is traversed and felt, both sensually and emotionally.

Thus far we have seen the different levels of freedom of form inherent in inorganic matter, which is completely bound up with form, and organic life, which maintains its free form by changing its material.  Organic life is itself stratified according to varying degrees of freedom.  The plant maintains its form by metabolizing with the material of its immediate environment.  The animal maintains its form by metabolizing with the material of its environment as disclosed in the mediating acts of perception, motility, and emotion.  In the next episode, the focus will shift to the peculiar freedom of the human and the role of mind in the hierarchy of life.

Unity Versus Multiplicity in Object-Oriented Ontologies

Are objects unities?  Identities?  Or, on the other hand, are they multiplicities?  This question is answered in different ways in different kinds of object-oriented ontology.  Object-oriented philosophy (represented by Graham Harman) is more focused on unities and identities, whereas onticology (represented by Levi Bryant) prefers multiplicities.  Consider Bryant’s remarks in a recent post:

While objects there are, these objects are neither unities nor identities.  No, they are multiplicities.  The object-oriented philosopher, in a desperate gambit to preserve identity, declares that identity and unity are withdrawn. […]  Such is the phallic logic that haunts object-oriented philosophy.  [….]  The onticologist, by contrast, declares that objects have no unity or identity.  Rather, for the onticologist, objects are pure multiplicities.

Bryant brings up Leibniz and Deleuze/Guattari to elaborate on this point.  An important aspect of Bryant’s position is that objects are wholes and those wholes are parts amidst other parts.  Similarly, when the object-oriented philosopher (Harman, to be specific) affirms the identity of objects, it is not to privilege the whole as opposed to parts.  In short, object-oriented philosophy and onticology both avoid simple whole-part oppositions in their respective definitions of objects.  However, the question or unity or multiplicity nevertheless divides these two approaches to OOO.  Accordingly, Harman (mentioning Deleuze but not Bryant) recently made the following comments about the unity-multiplicity conflict in light of his own call for more attention to Aristotle (in contrast to Žižek’s call for more Hegel).

[A]s long as it remains fashionable to take easy cheap shots at unity and identity with appeals to such concepts as “difference” and “multiplicity,” then you’ll know that we’re still running on the fumes of Generation Deleuze, which was fresh and liberating from around 1995-2007 but now threatens to become last night’s vinegary red wine.

In other words, Harman appreciates Aristotle (as well as Husserl) for positing a unity and identity of objects, and he thinks that the Deleuzian distaste for unity and identity is getting stale.  Harman isn’t dismissing everyone working with Deleuze, he’s “just saying that it’s time to stop adopting all of Deleuze’s heroes and spitting on all of his villains.”  I assume that Harman wouldn’t consider Bryant’s appeal to “multiplicity” as one of the “easy cheap shots” being taken at unity and identity.  It is a shot nonetheless.

I’m not taking sides yet.  I’m just paying attention as object-oriented philosophy and onticology continue developing.  It is nourishing food for thought.  I’ve been deeply influenced by Aristotle and Deleuze, and this question of unity versus multiplicity makes me want to read, re-read, and rethink.