Object-Oriented Philosophy

On his marvelous new blog, on which he manages to write more in a day than I do here in a month, and with consistent brilliance, Graham Harman makes a concession (or, I should probably rather say, a restatement) that I had been hoping to hear from him for a long time:

It’s not a matter of forgetting Kant’s exclusion from the in-itself. It’s a matter of questioning why he gives humans a monopoly on such exclusion. In a sense, I’m trying to let rocks, stones, armies, and Exxon join in the fun of being excluded from the in-itself. A sort of Kantianism for inanimate objects.

This is pretty close to one of the major theses of my own forthcoming book on Whitehead:

Whitehead rejects correlationism and anthropocentrism precisely by extending Kant’s analysis of conditions of possibility, and of the generative role of time, to all entities in the universe, rather than confining them to the privileged realm of human beings, or of rational minds. (p. 79)

Throughout his books, Harman rightly praises Whitehead for rejecting what Harman calls “the philosophy of human access,” that is to say, the philosophy that gives a privileged position to human subjectivity or to human understanding, as if the world’s very existence depended upon our ability to know it.  Rejecting the philosophy of human access means, among other things, rejecting Kant’s privileging of epistemology. As Whitehead puts it, since the 18th century, and especially since Kant, “the question, What do we know?, has been transformed into the question, What can we know?” (PR 74). What’s so energizing about Harman’s “object-oriented philosophy,” or about “speculative realism” more generally, is that it refuses to subordinate its arguments about the nature of the world (or about anything, really) to (second-order) arguments about how we can know whether such (first-order) arguments are correct. Kant endeavored to use the subordination of what we know to how we can be sure about the validity of what we know as a firm grounding for “any future metaphysics”; but of course this kind of meta-questioning inevitably leads to an infinite regress, or to an infinite argumentation that prevents one from ever making any actual arguments (this, I take it, is the witting or unwitting lesson of Derrida and of deconstruction). When we privilege epistemology, or the question of what we can know, over metaphysics, or the question of what we do know, we fall into the abyssal rabbit-hole that Hegel called the “bad infinity”. [Though in truth, I have always preferred this “bad infinity” to the sort of infinity of which Hegel approved — because the latter seems to involve a kind of fatuous self-confirmation, that would make “what we can know” into the measure of all existence. Kant at least insists that there are things whose existence we must affirm, even though we cannot know anything positive about them — sort of like Rumsfeld’s now famous “unknown unknowns” — whereas Hegel entirely subordinates existence to knowability. But that is a subject for another essay].

Now, I understand that Kant is the godfather of what Harman calls “the philosophy of human access,” or what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism.” Seriously, for all the speculative realists, Kant is the Number One bad guy. Nonetheless, as I have already suggested, it has long bothered me that Harman was (at least until now) unwilling to say about  Kant’s “things in themselves” what he says about Heidegger’s “tool-being”: that the concept is an important one, in underlining how things, or objects, cannot be reduced to our knowledge of them; that is to say, how things have a subterranean existence beyond whatever aspects of them we (or for that matter, any other entities that encounter them) are able to grasp. (Since Harman’s whole point is that there is no sense in privileging my encounter with a stone over, say, the snow’s encounter with that stone — the same problems of limited access arise in both situations). Harman argues that Heidegger makes a crucial step beyond human access with his concept of tool-being, even if he falls back into privileging human access in other aspects of his thought (like whenever he talks about Dasein). Couldn’t one make exactly the same argument vis-a-vis Kant?

Admittedly, I ask this question to a large extent for aesthetic and stylistic reasons. It is simply that (perversely, I admit) I enjoy Kant’s prose, while I do not get any pleasure at all from Heidegger’s. (As I have forgotten what little German I ever knew, I read them both only in translation, which makes the question of my likes and dislikes even more dubious and complicated). These preferences aside, however, the right question to ask is: what difference would it make to Harman’s argument if it were to be founded on Kant’s doctrine of things in themselves, and the impossibility of accessing the in-itself, instead of on Heidegger’s doctrine of tool-being (or the “subterranean reality” of things “which never comes openly to view” — Tool-Being, p. 24), and the irreducibility of things to their mere presence (or present-at-handedness)? How would Harman’s argument change, if it were to credit Kant instead of Heidegger with the discovery of a subterranean reality beyond, and irreducible to, representation and presence?

I am not sure about this, but my preliminary suspicion is that a recourse to Kant instead of Heidegger might force Harman to abandon, or at least modify, one of the most important features of his argument: his brilliant revival of the philosophical doctrines, which have been despised for most of the last several centuries, of substantialism and occasionalism. For Harman, if objects have a “subterranean reality,” beyond whatever relations they enter into, and beyond whatever qualities other objects are able to grasp of them, this means that all things or objects in the world are independent substances, entirely separate from one another. And, given that objects or substances are radically disjointed from one another, the relations between substances — which, ordinarily, we just take for granted — themselves need to be explicitly explained. As Whitehead says (and this is his criticism of substantialism; or his criticism of Harman in advance, as it were):

Such an account… renders an interconnected world of real individuals unintelligible. The universe is shivered into a multitude of disconnected substantial things, each thing in its own way exemplifying its private bundle of abstract characters which have found a common home in its own substantial individuality. But substantial thing cannot call unto substantial thing. (Adventues of Ideas, p. 133)

Harman answers this objection by recourse to occasionalism, or to what he also calls vicarious causation. An “occasion” must be posited to show how independent entities, each locked into its own subterranean existence, could encounter one another at all, even superficially. In the 17th century, occasionalism meant the intervention of God at every moment in every interaction between two or more entities. Harman argues, for the very first time, for a non-theistic occasionalism; he creatively explains how interactions between objects can occur, but can only occur, when both objects are located in the interior of some larger, or more all-encompassing object. The universe has layers of reality, and we never get either to the bottom or to the top.

Now, substantialism and occasionalism are the aspects of Harman’s thought that most perturb his readers (myself included). One would like to accept his “object-oriented,” anti-correlationist argument, his refusal to place “human access” at the center of things, or to give such access a uniquely privileged status, without thereby having to accept the radically anti-relational consequences that he draws from this argument. To think this way, however, is to do Harman an injustice: his substantialism/occasionalism is not a bug but a feature; it is precisely the creative core of his metaphysics. So what follows might well be just another attempt to evade the full audacity of Harman’s argument.

Nonetheless, I do think that reference to Kant’s “things in themselves” might really make a difference here. Heideggerian tool-being is inherently relational and “global,” as Harman explains. But by pushing Heidegger just a little bit, Harman is nonetheless able to argue that “tool-being recede[s] not just behind human awareness, but behind all relation whatsoever” (Tool-Being p. 288). For if human awareness loses its privileges, and is no different from any other sort of relation among objects, then what Heidegger says against the delusions of presence applies just as well to all other forms of relation. I want to suggest, however, that this logic might change if we see Heidegger’s argument about presence as a derivative of Kant’s argument about the relativity of phenomena. For Kant, noumena lurks inaccessibly behind phenomena, just as for Heidegger, the hidden tool-being of all entities lurks inaccessibly behind those entities’ presence-at-hand. But for Kant (unlike Heidegger?) the limitation which grasps of noumena only their reduced phenomenal profile is not only a loss or a reduction, but also a positive act, a construction, a bringing-into-relation. (This is why Whitehead, despite all his criticisms of Kant, nonetheless praises Kant as “the great philosopher who first, fully and explicitly, introduced into philosophy the conception of an act of experience as a constructive functioning” — Process and Reality, p. 156). Phenomena are generated out of the encounter between subject and object in Kant — but if one is willing to “to let rocks, stones, armies, and Exxon join in the fun of being excluded from the in-itself,” then we can say that phenomena are positively generated out of all encounters between objects: this move away from human access, and toward objects indiscriminately, is precisely what Whitehead accomplishes (so that, for Whitehead, “subjectivity” is precisely the result of such a constructive process, rather than what initiates it).

Now, when Heidegger (followed by Derrida) attacks metaphysical and scientific thought for its reduction of the reality of things to mere presence, what he misses is the Kantian sense in which any such reduction is also a positive construction: it is a new event, a creation, a transformation or a “translation.” (I am thinking here of what Levi Bryant calls “Latour’s Principle”: “there is no transportation without translation.” Harman’s own book on Latour is coming soon). Heidegger’s critique of presence might be summarized as the idea that translation is always a betrayal of that which is ostensibly being translated. But Kant’s conception of constructive functioning maintains that translation is the creation of something new: a successful translation (which for Heidegger is impossible) is not a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original, but precisely (to cite the terms of Latour’s Principle in inverse order) an act of transportation, a carrying-across which, in the process, thereby makes something new. From this point of view, both Whitehead and Latour give us a Kantianism without privileging human access, a Kantianism for all entities. And seeing the constructive work of relays and transportations/translations in this manner releases us from the desperate recourse (though, of course, Harman does not see it this way) to positing a universe of occult substances that can only communicate vicariously.

To put this in another way, just briefly (since this is something I am still working on, and trying to work out): Harman’s criticism of Whitehead is that Whitehead’s vision of relationality reduces the world to an endless infinite regress, something that is “too reminiscent of a house of mirrors.” According to Harman’s summary, for Whitehead any entity “turns out to be nothing more than its perceptions of other entities. These entities, in turn, are made up of still further perceptions. The hot potato is passed on down the line, and we never reach any reality that would be able to anchor the various perceptions of it” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 82). This criticism, however, is based on the assumption (precisely rejected by Whitehead) that “perceptions” are nothing positive in themselves, but just passive registrations of that which is perceived. Harman’s objection no longer holds, once we recognize that “perception” (or what Whitehead rather calls “prehension,” precisely to differentiate from the Humean, or classical empiricist, notion of perception) is itself a constructive functioning, a positive, creative and self-creative, process. And it is in all these acts of perception themselves that the “reality” already exists and “anchors” everything around it.

Harman also says that “no relational theory such as Whitehead’s is able to give a sufficient explanation of change,” because if a given entity ” holds nothing in reserve beyond its current relations to all entities in the universe, if it has no currently unexpressed properties, there is no reason to see how anything new can ever emerge” (ibid.). But Whitehead doesn’t quite say this; he says, rather, that what he calls the “subjective aim,” which is the way in which an entity skews or modifies its relations to all other entities, in a process of “decision”, is precisely that which the entity holds “in reserve” in relation to the other entities that it perceives. Once again, because Harman follows Heidegger (instead of Kant), he is unable to give credit to the way that perception as constructive functioning, precisely because it is always incomplete or selective, thereby produces new properties, new twists of relation, and thereby gives us novelty without the need to have recourse to occult substances.

I will be the first to admit that my argument here is incomplete; I need to say something as well about Whitehead’s notorious “eternal objects,” which play an important role in the processes over which I am disagreeing with Harman. I probably also need to say something about Whitehead’s notion of God, and how it relates to Harman’s counter-intuitive attempt to assert an occasionalism without God. And I certainly need to spell out more fully how I see Whitehead as championing a Kantianism without privileging human access. But for now, I have run out of energy and this post is already too long.

19 thoughts on “Object-Oriented Philosophy”

  1. Interesting analysis. When you mention “Object Oriented Philosophy” I instantly think about computer programming concepts.

    In the 17th century, occasionalism meant the intervention of God at every moment in every interaction between two or more entities. Harman argues, for the very first time, for a non-theistic occasionalism; he creatively explains how interactions between objects can occur, but can only occur, when both objects are located in the interior of some larger, or more all-encompassing object. The universe has layers of reality, and we never get either to the bottom or to the top.

    In a sense this is very true of “objects” that define programs as they exist in a piece of software. Objects are just latent things written down in a text editor (a process of yet more objects and code). At some point when one follows the chain down the line there was a point of initialization. In a very real sense there is that magical moment when a physical switch is triggered and electrical current passed to the computer allowing it to go through a boot sequence, creating its interior world and actualizing all the “objects” that exist in compiled code. Providing the means to maintain state and memory.

    Any given program or set of objects is already situated in a universe of other objects. Any given piece of software or object oriented code seems to invoke the same “non-theistic occasionalism” described above.

    Now onto the thing in itself. In a very real sense computer code faces the same dilemmas. One can construct an object that has a variety of properties and methods that give it “substance” if you will. Provide it a means for relationality with other objects in the code. The issue is always one of initialization. How can an object become aware of other objects and processes? How can information or data be moved between objects? A whole bunch of things have to happen that allow this process to work. And even the Object itself is merely an ideality. Most of the time in code one is dealing with “instances” of objects. Things that have been spawned through some initialization process and now reside as an electrical trace in a computer memory chip. Also there is an explicit distinction of inside and outside the object. For example when an object is created it has public and private properties (variables) and/or methods. If an object property is public that means that it can be changed by other objects or invocations of code directly. For example imagine a “person” object in code with a “name” property. So person.name = gordon is the property when initialized, eventually some other process can come along and say “person.name = foo”. Now that instance of the person object has been updated or changed. Objects also have private properties and methods. This means that outside objects and methods do not have the means to change this property. Only the code that exists inside the class or object can do that. So often in programming an object will have a setter and getter method for updating these internal values. The object itself has it own internal means and potentially rules for what that private property or method can become.

  2. Good summary, Gordon.

    Actually I’d wish professional philosophers would abandon sterile physical reductionism and be more amazed about how information systems are both well founded and able to let arbitrary consistent system descriptions like OOP coexist with the foundations and relate them using translations which are not simplistic decompositions in time and space like Democritan atomism.

    Another remark. I find the assertion that

    The universe has layers of reality, and we never get either to the bottom or to the top

    rather obscurantist. What’s so bad about assuming there is a bottom layer? It’s not even as bad as admitting that man descends from ape – something most enlightened people do today 😉

  3. It looks to me as if a strawman is being knocked down, but with a lot of hot air. To the extent it is being assumed the scientific notion of causality has undergone little or no change over the last 200-250 years, I think it safe to assume this is all wrong. The discoveries of quantum mechanics replace the older scientific models of causality with probabilistic ones–and this amounted to a revolutionary change. That’s what I think is missing from these ideas–an appreciation of the concepts of probability.

  4. “What’s so bad about assuming there is a bottom layer?”

    But that’s really the point, isn’t it? That it would have to be an assumption and that’s partly because “we” are the ones doing the assuming.

    Clearly a principle of some sort is established, whether defacto and unalluded to or not, to do any thinking about anything; but if one directs one’s thoughts to a presumptive “bottom layer” to try and define or establish it, doesn’t one automatically begin such a process by establishing de rigueur boundaries for what would constitute an appropriate or acceptable definition? Of course I know how much some still actively dislike anything remotely “obscure”. Sorry about the excessive quotes. It just seemed fitting.

  5. Nathaniel, I’ve noticed that the problem of establishing foundations have always been a matter of pathos just like marking claims and taking some territory into account. There is also the age of enlightenment mythology about avoiding obscurity and bringing light into the things: hopefully this long search ends in the future by establishing a grand unified theory that somehow pops out of a long but finite research process. On the other side there are obscurantists who try to defeat this process because in the obscure there also lies their own soul and maybe also God and other higher and lower souls and minds that give value to the world. Their point is that the grand unified theory will actually be the ultimate victory of nihilism. The human ( or the soul ) will be dead forever and we end up in a depressing state.

    Sometimes it is fun to sidestep this tragic history by noticing how a discipline works that has established their foundations right at the beginning and lives well with them since then. These foundations are unlikely to be altered by future research. So the grand unified theory just has happened but this wasn’t even a celebrated or tragic event. It didn’t defeat the obscure ( actually the technical world becomes more obscure every day ) but there is also no place for obscurantism. It also didn’t help to clarify all our ideas because almost everything is tangled with a semantics that might not translate easily or is inconsistent and needs to be fixed… So the founding problem is reproduced no matter whether there is a bottom layer or not. Actually we strive to establish higher level, more abstract systems that solve real problems for us. They can always be deconstructed and this both happens intentionally to make them work and unintentionally where errors show up. These errors can’t be avoided entirely but controlled and represented by the higher order system. All higher level systems establish new metaphors. “Object” is such a metaphor and Gordon resumed the ideas connected to the Object metaphor quite well. There is no indication that the proponents of some metaphors or styles are more or less rational/irrational than everyone else.

    To sum it up. For those ethnologists among you who would like to see what happens once the basic philosophical problem of establishing firm foundations is solved there is little indication of hope or grief.

  6. When it comes to foundations, causality, and stable hypotheses, I always preferred the skeptical humility of David Hume:

    That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.

  7. I wonder if Hume was a skeptical about the past ( like Derrida ) well knowing that any confirmation of a fact about the past can only lie in the future?

  8. Sorry, Shaviro, to ask you something that I know may seem truly inadequate,
    but I have just discovered that Harman’s blog “doctor marzalek” has been deleted – by himself, I suppose. I began to read it from your posts, and from larval subjects , that I read “religiously”… But, anyway, Do you have any news ot this desappearance??
    Best regards…

  9. hi stephen
    Agreed that there are lots of troubles introduced by OOP(s)… Yet, what I don’t understand in your argumentation is that you still stick to the object as kind of a premise. Doing so, it is impossible to criticize OOPs, for assuming the separation of subjects and objects in this case is a petitio principii… you are caught before you start.
    Instead I would expect the critical difference between OOPs and its denial on the level of individuation, of course without referring to objects and subjects either.

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