Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) influenced the work of such diverse thinkers as Sartre and Derrida. In Tool-Being, Graham Harman departs from the prevailing linguistic approach to analytic and continental philosophy in favor of Heideggerian object-oriented research into the secret contours of objects. Written in a colorful style, it will be of interest to anyone open to new trends in present-day philosophy.
The current fashions in both analytic and continental philosophy are staunchly anti-metaphysical. There is supposedly no way to talk about the world itself — the philosopher is confined to antiseptic discussions of language, or of other modes of human access to the world. In this provocative work, Graham Harman expands the discussion from his previous book, Tool-Being, arguing for a theory of "the carpentry of things" — a more accessible way of viewing the world that incorporates ideas from Husserl, Levinas, (...) Lingis, and other philosophers. (shrink)
Prince of Networks is the first treatment of Bruno Latour specifically as a philosopher. It has been eagerly awaited by readers of both Latour and Harman since their public discussion at the London School of Economics in February 2008. Part One covers four key works that display Latour’s underrated contributions to metaphysics: Irreductions, Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, and Pandora’s Hope. Harman contends that Latour is one of the central figures of contemporary philosophy, with a highly original (...) ontology centered in four key concepts: actants, irreduction, translation, and alliance. In Part Two, Harman summarizes Latour’s most important philosophical insights, including his status as the first ‘secular occasionalist.’ The problem of translation between entities is no longer solved by the fiat of God (Malebranche) or habit (Hume), but by local mediators. Working from his own ‘object-oriented’ perspective, Harman also criticizes the Latourian focus on the relational character of actors at the expense of their cryptic autonomous reality. This book forms a remarkable interface between Latour’s Actor-Network Theory and the Speculative Realism of Harman and his confederates. It will be of interest to anyone concerned with the emergence of new trends in the humanities following the long postmodernist interval. (shrink)
Continental philosophy has entered a new period of ferment. The long deconstructionist era was followed with a period dominated by Deleuze, which has in turn evolved into a new situation still difficult to define. However, one common thread running through the new brand of continental positions is a renewed attention to materialist and realist options in philosophy. Among the leaders of the established generation, this new focus takes numerous forms. It might be hard to find many shared positions in the (...) writings of Badiou, DeLanda, Laruelle, Latour, Stengers, and Žižek, but what is missing from their positions is an obsession with the critique of written texts. All of them elaborate a positive ontology, despite the incompatibility of their results. Meanwhile, the new generation of continental thinkers is pushing these trends still further, as seen in currents ranging from transcendental materialism to the London-based speculative realism movement to new revivals of Derrida. As indicated by the title The Speculative Turn, the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself. This anthology assembles authors, of several generations and numerous nationalities, who will be at the centre of debate in continental philosophy for decades to come. (shrink)
These writings chart Harman's rise from Chicago sportswriter to co-founder of one of Europe's most promising philosophical movements: Speculative Realism. In 1997, Graham Harman was an obscure graduate student covering Chicago sporting events for a California website. Unpublished in philosophy at the time, he was already a popular conference speaker on Heidegger and related themes. Little more than a decade later, as the author of stimulating and highly visible books on continental philosophy, he was Associate Vice Provost for Research at (...) the American University in Cairo, and a key member of the Speculative Realist movement along with Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux. This fascinating collection of eleven essays and lectures from 1997-2009, anchored by Harman's rebellious transformation of Heideggerian philosophy, show the evolution of his object-oriented metaphysics from its early days into an increasingly developed philosophical position. Each chapter is preceded by Harman's delightful and witty scene-setting commentary. (shrink)
Quentin Meillassoux has been described as the most rapidly prominent French philosopher in the Anglophone world since Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. With the publication of After Finitude (2006), this daring protege of Alain Badiou became one of the world's most visible younger thinkers. In this book, his fellow Speculative Realist, Graham Harman, assesses Meillassoux's publications in English so far. Also included are an insightful interview with Meillassoux and first-time translations of excerpts from L'Inexistence divine (The Divine Inexistence), his famous (...) but still unpublished major book. (shrink)
In this book the metaphysical system of Graham Harman is presented in lucid form, aided by helpful diagrams. In Chapter 1, Harman gives his most forceful critique to date of philosophies that reject objects as a primary reality. All such rejections are tainted by either an undermining or overmining approach to objects. In Chapters 2 and 3, he reviews his concepts of sensual and real objects. In the process, he attacks the prestige normally granted to philosophies of human access, which (...) Harman links for the first time to the already discredited Menos Paradox. In Chapters 4 through 7, Harman brings the reader up to speed on his interpretation of Heidegger, which culminates in a fourfold structure of objects linked by indirect causation. In Chapter 8, he speculates on the implications of this theory for the debate over panpsychism, which Harman both embraces and rejects. In Chapters 9 and 10, he introduces the term ontography as the study of the different possible permutations of objects and qualities, which he simplifies with easily remembered terminology drawn from standard playing cards. (shrink)
continent. 1.2 (2011): 78-91. This article consists of three parts. First, I will review the major themes of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude . Since some of my readers will have read this book and others not, I will try to strike a balance between clear summary and fresh critique. Second, I discuss an unpublished book by Meillassoux unfamiliar to all readers of this article, except those scant few that may have gone digging in the microfilm archives of the École normale (...) supérieure. The book in question is Meillassoux’s revised doctoral dissertation L’Inexistence divine (or The Divine Inexistence ), with its seemingly bizarre vision of a God who does not yet exist but might exist in the future. Without literally accepting this view, I will claim that it is philosophically interesting in ways that even a hardened sceptic might be able to appreciate. Third and finally, I will speculate on the possible future of Meillassoux’s speculative materialism itself. And here I mean its future development not by Meillassoux, but by those readers who might be inspired by his book. Plato could never have predicted the emergence of Aristotle’s philosophy, despite the obvious debt of the latter to the former. Nor could Descartes have predicted Spinoza and Leibniz, nor Kant the German Idealists, and neither could Husserl in 1901 have foreseen the later emergence of Heidegger. How are the works of interesting philosophers transformed by later thinkers of comparable importance? While it may seem that there are countless ways to do this, I think there are only two basic ways in which this happens: you can radicalize your predecessors, or you can reverse them. I will close this article with a few words about these two methods, and try to imagine how Meillassoux might be radicalized or reversed by some future admirer. My view is that the more important thinkers are, the easier they are to radicalize or reverse. This helps explain why the great philosophers of the West have so often appeared in clusters, succeeding one another at relatively brief intervals during periods of especial ferment. 1. After Finitude After Finitude is unusually short for such an influential book of philosophy: running to just 178 pages in the original French, and an even more compact 128 pages in the English version, despite the introduction of roughly eight pages of new material for the English edition. Rather than summarizing Meillassoux’s book in the order he intended, I will focus on six points that strike me as the pillars of his debut book. Along the way, I will offer a few criticisms as well. The first pillar of the book is Meillassoux’s own term “correlationism.”1 Although he introduces this term as the name for an enemy, it is striking that Meillassoux remains impressed by correlationism much more than his fellow speculative realists are. This continued appreciation for his great enemy influences the shape of his own ontology. Is there a world outside our thinking of it, or does the world consist entirely in being thought? Traditionally, this dispute between realism and idealism has been dismissed in continental philosophy as a “pseudo-problem,” in a strategy pioneered by Husserl and extended by Heidegger. We cannot be realists, since following Kant we have no direct access to things-in-themselves. But neither are we idealists, since the human being is always already outside itself, aiming at objects in intentional experience, deeply engaged with practical implements, or stationed in some particular world-disclosing mood. The centuries-old dispute between realism and idealism is dissolved by saying that we cannot think either real or ideal in isolation from the other. There is neither human without world nor world without human, but only a primordial correlation or rapport between the two. This is what “correlationism” means: philosophy trapped in a permanent meditation on the human-world correlate, trying to find the best model of the correlate: is it language, intentionality, embodiment, or some other form of correlation between human and world? Among other problems, this generates some friction between philosophy and the literal meaning of science. When cosmologists say that the universe originated 13.5 billion years ago, they do not mean “13.5 billion years ago for us ,” but literally 13.5 billion years ago, well before conscious life existed, and thus at a time when there was no such thing as a correlate. Meillassoux also coins the term “ancestrality” (10) for the reality that predated the correlate, and later expands this term to “dia-chronicity,” (112) to refer to events occurring after the extinction of human beings no less than to those occurring before we existed. Up to this point, Meillassoux’s focus on ancestral entities existing prior to consciousness might seem like a straightforward realist who wants to unmask correlationism as just another form of idealism. Yet Meillassoux also admires the correlationist maneuver, which can obviously be traced back to Kant. Unlike a thinker such as Whitehead, Meillassoux feels no nostalgia for the pre-critical realism that came before Kant: “we cannot but be heirs of Kantianism,” he says (29). What impresses Meillassoux about correlationism is something both simple and familiar. If we attempt to think a tree outside thought, this is itself a thought . Any form of realism which thinks it can simply and directly address the world the way it is fails to escape the correlational circle, since the attempt to think something outside of thought is itself nothing other than a thought, and thereby collapses back into the very human-world correlate that it pretends to escape. For Meillassoux this step, suggested by Kant but first refined by the ensuing figures of German Idealism, marks decisive forward progress in the history of philosophy that must not be abolished. Any attempt to break free from the correlate must first acknowledge its mighty intellectual power. Realist though he may seem, Meillassoux’s works are filled with praise of such figures as Fichte and Hegel, not of so-called “naïve realists.” It is also the case that for Meillassoux, not all correlationisms are the same. The second pillar of his book is a distinction between various positions that I have termed “Meillassoux’s Spectrum,” though of course he is never so immodest as to name it after himself. He distinguishes between at least six different possible positions, and perhaps we could add even subtler variations if we wished. But in its simplest form, Meillassoux’s Spectrum allows for just four basic outlooks on the question of realism vs. anti-realism. Three of these are easy to understand, since we have already been discussing them. At one extreme is so-called “naïve realism,” which holds that a world exists outside the mind, and that we can know this world. Meillassoux rejects this naïve realism as having been overthrown by Kant’s critical philosophy. At the other extreme is subjective idealism, in which nothing exists outside the mind. For to think a dog outside thought immediately turns it into a thought, and therefore there cannot be anything outside; the very notion is meaningless. In between these two is what we have called correlationism. And here comes a crucial moment for Meillassoux, since he distinguishes between the two forms of “weak” and “strong” correlationism, and chooses the strong form as the launching pad for his own philosophy. Weak correlationism is easy to explain, since we all know it from the philosophy of Kant. The things-in-themselves can be thought but not known. They certainly must exist, since there cannot be appearances without something that appears. And we can think about them, which idealism holds to be impossible. They are simply unknowable due to the finitude of human thought. Strong correlationism is the new position introduced by Meillassoux (though he sees it at work in numerous twentieth century thinkers), midway between weak correlationism and subjective idealism. The major difference between the three positions is as follows. Weak correlationism says: “The things-in-themselves exist, but we cannot know them.” The subjective idealist says: “This is a contradiction in terms, since when we think the things-in-themselves, we already turn them into thoughts.” But the strong correlationist says: “Just because ‘things-in-themselves’ is a meaningless notion does not mean that they cannot exist. No one has ever traveled to the world-in-itself and come back to make a report on it. Thus, the fact that we cannot think things-in-themselves without contradiction does not prove that they do not exist anyway. There may be things-in-themselves, we simply are not capable of thinking them without contradiction form within the correlational circle.” This step is crucial for Meillassoux, since strong correlationism is the position he attempts to radicalize into his own new standpoint: speculative materialism. As I see it, this step of the argument fails. Strong correlationism cannot avoid collapsing into subjective idealism, since the statements of the strong correlationist are rendered meaningless from within. All three of the other positions in the Spectrum make perfectly good sense even for those who disagree with them. The naïve realist says that things-in-themselves exist and we can know them; the meaning of this statement is clear. The weak correlationist can say that things-in-themselves exist but lie forever beyond our grasp; this too makes perfect sense, even though the German Idealists try to show a contradiction at work here. We can also understand the claim of the subjective idealist that to think anything outside thought turns it into a thought, and that for this reason we cannot think the unthought. The strong correlationist, alone among the four, speaks nonsense . This person says “I cannot think the unthought without turning it into a thought, and yet the unthought might exist anyway.” But notice that the final phrase “the unthought might exist anyway” is fruitless for this purpose. For we have already heard that to think any unthought turns it into a thought. But now the strong correlationist wants to do two incompatible things simultaneously with this unthought. On the one hand, he neutralizes the unthought by showing that it instantly changes into just another thought. But on the other hand, he wants to appeal to the unthought as a haunting residue that might exist outside thought, thereby undercutting the absolute status of the human-world correlate found in idealism. But this is impossible. If you accept the argument that thinking the unthought turns it into a thought, you cannot also add “but maybe there is something outside that prevents this conversion from being absolutely true,” because this “something outside” is immediately converted into nothing but a thought for us. In short, Meillassoux here seems to be offering a kind of Zen koan: his “strong correlationism” is reminiscent of the gateless gate, or the sound of one hand clapping, or the command to punch Hegel in the jaw when meeting him on the road. We cannot at the same time both destroy the realist challenge of the things-in-themselves in order to undercut realism and reintroduce that very realist sense in order to undercut idealism. In a world where everything is instantly converted into thought, we cannot claim that there might be something extra-mental anyway, because this “might be something” is itself converted into a thought by the same rules that condemned dogs, trees, and houses to the idealist prison. This brings us to the third pillar of Meillassoux’s argument, which is the key to all the rest: the necessity of contingency. His strategy is to transform our supposed ignorance of things-in-themselves into an absolute knowledge that they exist without reason, and that the laws of nature can change at any time for no reason at all. In this way the cautious agnosticism of Kantian philosophies is avoided, but so is the collapse of reality into thought as found in German Idealism. Meillassoux does try to prove the existence of things-in-themselves existing outside thought; he simply holds that they must be proven after passing through the rigors of the correlationist challenge, not just arbitrarily decreed to exist in the manner of naïve realism. As he puts it, “Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws; and this not by virtue of some superior law whereby everything is destined to perish, but by virtue of the absence of any superior law capable of preserving anything, no matter what, from perishing” (53). If idealism thinks that the human-world correlate is absolute, for Meillassoux it is the facticity of the correlate that is absolute. He tries to show this with a nice brief dialogue between five separate characters (55-59) which is covered in detail in my forthcoming book,2 but which I will simplify here for reasons of time. In this simplified version, we first imagine a dogmatic realist arguing with a dogmatic idealist. The realist says that we can know the truth about the things-in-themselves; the idealist counters that we can only the truth about thought, since all statements about reality must be turned into statements concerning our thoughts about reality. Here the correlationist enters and proclaims that both of these positions are equally dogmatic. For although we have access to nothing but thoughts, we cannot be sure that these thoughts are all that exist; there could be a reality outside thought, there is simply no way to know for sure. And this latter position is the one that Meillassoux attempts to transform from an agnostic, skeptical point into an ontological claim about the contingency of everything. Consider it this way. How does the correlationist defeat the idealist? The idealist holds that the existence of anything outside thought is impossible. The correlationist, by contrast, holds that something might exist outside the human-world correlate. But this “something might” has to be an absolute possibility. It cannot mean that “something outside thought might exist for thought ,” because that is what the idealist already says. No, the correlationist must mean that something might exist outside thought quite independently of thought. In other words, the correlationist says that idealism might be wrong, and this means it is absolutely true that idealism might be wrong. Thus, correlationism is no longer just a skeptical position. It holds that all the possibilities of the world are absolute possibilities. We have absolute knowledge that any of the possibilities about the existence or non-existence of things-in-themselves might be true, and this means that correlationism flips into Meillassoux’s own position: speculative materialism. As Meillassoux sees it, there are only two options here. Option A is to absolutize the human-world correlate, which is what the idealist does: there absolutely cannot be anything outside thought. Option B, by contrast, is to absolutize the facticity of the correlate: its character of simply being given to us, without any inherent necessity. The correlationist cannot have it both ways by saying: “there absolutely might be something outside thought, yet maybe this is absolutely impossible.” In other words, once we escape dogmatism we can only be idealists or speculative materialists, not correlationists. The human-world correlate is merely a fact, not an absolute necessity. But this facticity itself cannot be merely factical: it must be absolute. Here Meillassoux coins the French neologism factualité , which has been suitably translated into the English neologism “factiality.” (7, 122-3) Factialty means that for everything that exists, it is absolutely possible that it might be otherwise, not just that we cannot know whether or not it might be otherwise. Just as Kant transformed philosophy into a meditation on the categories governing human finitude, Meillassoux wishes to turn philosophy into a meditation on the necessary conditions of factiality, which he calls “figures”—a new technical term for him. (80) One such figure is that the law of non-contradiction must be true, and for an unusual reason. Since everything is proven to be contingent, nothing that exists can be contradictory, for whatever is contradictory has no opposite into which it might be transformed, and thus contingency would be impossible.3 Another such figure is that there must be something rather than nothing: for since contingency exists, something must exist in order to be contingent. It is a daring high-wire act, one that sacrifices realism to the correlational circle in order to rebuild it from out of its own ashes. Some might conclude that the lack of reason in things is a byproduct of the ignorance of finite humans, Meillassoux is making precisely the opposite point. For in fact, the doctrine of finitude usually leads directly to belief in a hidden reason. The fact that it lies beyond human comprehension merely increases our belief in this arbitrarily chosen concealed ground. By defending anew the concept of absolute knowledge Meillassoux evacuates the world of everything hidden. The reason for things having no reason is not that the reason is hidden, but that no reason exists. Thus, even while insisting on the necessity of non-contradiction, he rejects the other Leibnizian principle: sufficient reason. Everything simply is what it is, in purely immanent form, without deeply hidden causes. Or as Meillassoux puts it: “There is nothing beneath or beyond the manifest gratuitousness of the given—nothing but the limitless and lawless power of its destruction, emergence, or persistence” (63).The world is a “hyper-chaos”(64). But this is not the same thing as flux. For the chaos of the world is such that stability might occur just as easily as constant, turbulent change. Let’s now digress a bit, and return to the question of ancestrality, which Meillassoux transforms later in the book into “dia-chronicity.” Correlationism holds that all talk of a world outside the correlate is immediately recuperated by the correlate. The phrase “13.5 billion years ago” becomes “13.5 billion years ago for us ,” and the phrase “the universe following the extinction of humans” becomes “the universe following the extinction of humans for humans .” But notice that whether we talk about the world before or after humans, in both cases it is time that is used to challenge the correlate. Meillassoux has no interest in challenges that might be posed by space. For example, what about a vase in a lonely country house that topples to the floor and smashes when no one is there to watch it? Isn’t this also a challenge to correlationism, no less than the Big Bang or the heat death of the universe long after humans have vanished? In an eight-page supplement to the English translation of After Finitude ,4 possibly in response to my own 2007 review of the French original,5 Meillassoux bluntly denies that space is of any relevance to the question. Spatial distance is a merely harmless challenge to the human-world correlate. After all, even though no one is there in the lonely country house to witness the shattering of the vase, we can say that had there been an observer , that observer would have witnessed the toppling and destruction of the vase. For this event still occurs in a world in which the human-world correlate already exists, whereas the diachronicity of events both before and after the existence of humans makes it impossible to say that had there been an observer they would have witnessed the Big Bang occurring in such and such a fashion. However, it seems to me that Meillassoux merely asserts that the temporal simultaneity of our existence with that of the vase in the lonely country house is enough to render it harmless. It is true that the house does not exist prior to the correlate, but nonetheless it exists outside the correlate, and that is enough to make the same challenge. It is difficult to see why the “had there been an observer” maneuver succeeds in the case of a vase in the countryside in April 2011 but fails in the case of the Big Bang. This is not just a matter of nitpicking Meillassoux’s argumentative style: the fact that he bases his argument on time has at least two important consequences for his position. For in the first place, even though Meillassoux insists that the laws of nature are absolutely contingent, this turns out to be true only in a temporal sense. That is to say, it is a paradoxical feature of Meillassoux’s philosophy that he does allow for the existence of laws of nature, and simply believes that they can change at any moment without reason. Within any given moment, laws of nature do exist. He never suggests that different parts of the universe can have different laws at the same time, nor does he have any interest in the laws of part/whole composition that take place within any given instant. Could it be the case that rather than being made of gold atoms, a small chunk of gold could be made of silver atoms, cotton, horses, or that this same small piece of gold could be made of gigantic vaults filled with even more gold? These are not topics that draw Meillassoux’s attention, since he is focused solely on how the laws of nature might change or endure from one moment to the next . Another implication for Meillassoux’s system is that his concept of things-in-themselves turns out to be to be inadequate. For when he proves that things-in-themselves can exist without humans, this turns out to be true only in a temporal sense as well. Namely, things-in-themselves existed ten billion years ago, and they will continue to exist after all humans have succeeded in exterminating themselves. However, being able to exist before our births and after our deaths is just one small part of what it means to be a thing-in-itself. The more important part is that even if a thing is sitting on a table right now, in front of me, even if I stroke it lovingly or press my face up against it directly, I am still dealing only with a phenomenal version of the thing; the thing-in-itself continues to withdraw from all access. Yet no such thing is acknowledged by Meillassoux. For him finitude is a disaster, and absolute knowledge is in fact possible. Meillassoux’s thing-in-itself exists in independence only of the human lifespan , not of human knowledge. The fifth pillar of Meillassoux’s argument is his use of Cantor’s transfinite mathematics to show that even if the laws of nature are contingent, they need not be unstable, and thus we cannot use the apparent stability of nature to disprove his metaphysics of absolute contingency. What Cantor showed is that there are different sizes of infinity, and that all these infinities cannot be totalized in a single infinite number of infinities. Meillassoux sees this as crucial, since it allows him to discredit any “probabilistic” argument against his theory. The probabilistic argument (as defended quite clearly by Jean-René Vernes)6 would say this: given that the laws of nature seem so stable, it it is extremely improbable that there is no hidden reason for their remaining so stable. As Meillassoux sees it, probability is of value only when we can index an accessible total of cases. These can even be infinite: for example, there are an infinite number of points where a rope can break when stretched tight, but this does not stop us from calculating probabilities for various sections of the rope to break. By contrast, there is no way to sum up the number of possible laws of nature. For here there is no way to totalize; we cannot stand outside of nature and calculate the possible number of laws so as to determine the probabilities that any one of them might change. Therefore, although we can speak of probability when dealing with intraworldly events such as elections, horse races, and coin-flips, we cannot use the words “probable” or “improbable” when describing alterations at the level of nature as a whole. Rather than commenting on the validity of this argument and its use of Cantor, let me simply note that it once again creates a dualistic ontology. We already saw that Meillassoux treats time differently from space. In analogous fashion, he now treats the level of world differently from that of intraworldly events. The emergence of worlds is purely contingent and virtual and governed by no probability at all, while events within the world necessarily follow laws (even if these laws can change at any moment without reason), and thus their probabilities can be calculated. It is a strategy deeply reminiscent of Badiou’s (2005) own dualism between the normal “state of the situation” and the rare and intermittent “event.” The sixth and final pillar of Meillassoux’s book can be dealt with briefly, since we have already touched on it elsewhere. It comes at the very beginning of the book, when Meillassoux says that we must revive the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and that the primary qualities are the ones that can be mathematized. He admits that he has not yet published a proof of this idea, though in fact it is already known as one of his primary doctrines. And here we encounter the familiar problem with Meillassoux’s inadequate conception of things-in-themselves. “Primary qualities” refers to those qualities that a thing has independently of its relations with us or anything else. But if the primary qualities can be mathematized, this means that they are not entirely independent of us, since our knowledge can get right to the bottom of them. The mathematized qualities of things are independent of us only in Meillassoux’s sense that they will still have those qualities even when all humans are dead. But to repeat, autonomy from the human lifespan is not the same as autonomy from human access. Here once more Meillassoux is concerned only with independence from the human-world correlate across time, not in any given instant. 2. L’Inexistence divine In 1997, the same year in which he turned thirty years old, Meillassoux earned his doctorate at the École normale supériuere with a brazen dissertation entitled L’Inexistence divine ( The Divine Inexistence ). The work was substantially revised in 2003. But even then, with typical fastidiousness, Meillassoux decided that the work was not yet ready for press. It has now been scrapped in favor of some future, multi-volume work bearing the same title. While writing my book on Meillassoux for Edinburgh University Press, I was permitted to translate excerpts from this unpublished work for use as an appendix in my own book; in total, the appendix contains approximately twenty percent of Meillassoux’s 2003 manuscript, the first time any of it will be published in any language. Nonetheless, a portion of the argument was already tested in the article “Spectral Dilemma,” published in English in the journal Collapse (2008: 261-75). There the philosophical motives for the virtual God are already made clear. What troubles us most are early deaths, brutal deaths, deaths of especial injustice– the sorts of deaths in which the brutal twentieth century was so abundant. And here, neither the atheist nor the believer can help us. The atheist can offer nothing but a sad and cynical resignation when reflecting on the victims of these terrible crimes. The believer does little better, being unable to explain how God could have allowed such things to happen, due to the famous intractability of the problem of evil. The solution offered to this dilemma by Meillassoux is bold, and all the more so given that he emerges from such a deeply Leftist, materialist, and unreligious background. His solution is that God does not yet exist, and therefore is not blameworthy for these catastrophes. Given that everything is contingent in Meillassoux’s philosophy, this God and divine justice might never exist, but they can at least exist as an object of hope. Let’s begin by jumping to the end of L’Inexistence divine , where the alternatives are laid out so nicely. There are four basic attitudes that humans can have towards God, Meillassoux says. First, we can believe in God because he exists. This is the classical theist attitude, rejected for the simple reason that it would be amoral and blasphemous to believe in a God who allows children to be eaten by dogs, to use Dostoevsky’s example. Second, we can disbelieve in God because he does not exist: the classical atheist attitude. But this leads to sadness, cynicism, and a sneering contempt for the greatness of human capacity. The third option, rather more complex, is to disbelieve in God because he does exist: in other words, to exist in rebellion against God as the one who must be blamed for the evils of the earth. The examples here might range from Lucifer himself, to the more human figure of Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick , to Werner Herzog’s even more recent catchphrase, “Every man for himself, and God against all.” That leaves only the fourth option: believing in God because he does not exist. Meillassoux closes his book by saying that the fourth option has now been tried (namely, in the course of his own book), and that now that all four have been specified, we must choose. The first reaction to this theory of the inexistent God will be laughter. Few readers will ever be literally convinced by it, and probably none will immediately be convinced by it. But if we ask ourselves why we laugh, the answer is because it sounds so improbable that an inexistent God might suddenly emerge and resurrect the dead. It obviously sounds more like a gullible theology than a rigorous piece of philosophical work. Yet two things need to be kept in mind. First, Meillassoux’s theories are hardly more unlikely than those of great philosophers of the past such as Plato, Plotinus, Avicenna, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibniz, Nietzsche, or Whitehead. We read the great philosophers not because their systems are plausible in commonsense terms that can be measured by the laws of probability. Instead, we read them precisely because they shatter the existing framework of common sense and open up new window on the universe. Second, and even more importantly, Meillassoux has already rejected probability as a valid measuring stick in philosophy. Or rather, he accepts probability in the intra-worldly realm (where it is linked with potentiality), and rejects it at the level of the world itself (where potentiality is replaced with what he calls virtuality). The virtual God can appear at any moment for no reason at all, just as any other new configuration of laws of nature can appear: in a manner that the laws of probability cannot calculate. Responding to those who might ridicule the idea of a sudden emergence of God and a resurrection of the dead, Meillassoux cites Pascal, who asserts that the resurrection of the dead would be far less incredible than the fact that we were born in the first place. This shifts philosophy onto new ground. Rather than concerning ourselves with what is likely to happen in the world as we know it, we focus instead on the most important things that could happen. For this reason, the expected objection that a virtual God is no more likely to appear than a virtual unicorn or a virtual flying spaghetti monster misses the point. Unicorns and spaghetti monsters could also appear, just like any other non-contradictory thing. But these would just be novel bizarre entities among others, not the heralds of completely new worlds. For Meillassoux, the emergence of matter, life, and thought have been the three truly amazing advents of the world so far, each of them dependent on the advent(s) preceding them. As he sees it, there can be no greater intraworldly entity than the human beings who already exist, since nothing in the world is better than the absolute knowledge of which humans alone are capable. This means that the next great advent must be something that perfects human beings rather than superseding them. And this can only be the world of justice, in which the dead are resurrected and their horrible deaths partially cancelled (Meillassoux never considers the possibility of a God who would literally erase the pre-divine past so that it never happened at all). The only immortality worth having is an immortality of this life, not an existence in some ill-defined afterworld. Human existence, he holds, must always be governed by a “symbol” that gives us the “immanent and comprehensible inscription of values in a world.” And just as cosmic history made the three great contingent leaps of matter, life, and thought, with a leap to justice as the only one still to come, a similar structure occurs within human culture and its symbols, which consist so far of the cosmological, naturalistic, and historical symbols, with a “factial” symbol still to come. We can review each of these symbols briefly. The cosmological symbol refers to the ancient dualism between the terrestrial and celestial spheres. Here below everything is conflict, corruption, and decay; but in the heavens nothing is perishable, all movement is circular, and everything is arranged in mutual harmony. This symbol is ended by modern physics when Galileo discovers such blemishes as sunspots and craters on the moon, and when Newton integrates both celestial and terrestrial movement into a single gravitational law. Next comes the naturalistic or romantic symbol, in which perfection comes not from the sky but from nature itself. The world is filled with pretty flowers (Meillassoux claims that the ancients never discussed the beauty of flowers until Plotinus in the third century) and with living creatures naturally moved by pity, at least until society corrupts them. This symbol collapses in the face of reality as we know it, since pity is no more common than war, corruption, and violence. This brings us to the historical symbol, which only now is passing away. Bad things may happen, but history has an inner logic of its own, such that everything works out in the end. The ultimate form of the historical symbol is the economic symbol, whether in a Marxist or neo-liberal form. Just as the Marxist holds that the inner economic logic of the capitalists will inexorably lead them to self-destruction, the neo-liberal assumes that the sum total of individual selfish actions will lead, in the long run, to the greatest possible good. We worship the economy and let it guide history for us, just as the ancients worshipped celestial bodies and held them to be free from blemish. The final remaining symbol is the factial symbol, which Meillassoux hopes will now emerge. Factiality, we recall, is his term for the absolute contingency of everything that exists. Once we have grasped this absolute contingency, we are free to expect the dramatic advent of the coming fourth World: the world of justice, inaugurated by a virtual God and even mediated by a messianic human figure. There is the added feature, however, that this messiah must abandon all claims to special status once the messianic realm of justice is achieved. The messianic figure will then be no more special than any person on the street, since a reign of human equality will have arisen. Although this focus on human being might seem like a return to standard humanism, Meillassoux holds that human pre-eminence has never truly been maintained. Previously, humans have been treated as special only because they contemplate the Good, because they resemble their omnipotent creator, or because they happen to be the temporary victors in a cruel Darwinian death-match between millions of living species. For Meillassoux, by contrast, humans have value because they know the eternal. But it is not the eternal that is important, since this merely represents the blind, anonymous contingency of each thing. What is important is not knowledge of the eternal , but knowledge of the eternal. We should not admire Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods; Prometheus is simply as bad as all the gods, no matter how much he increased our power. Feuerbach and Marx were wrong to say that God is a projection of the human essence, since for Meillassoux the usual concept of God represents the degradation of the human essence. If the traditional God was allowed to inflict plagues and tsunamis on the human race, the Promethean human of the twentieth century simply assumes the right to inflict death camps and atomic fireballs instead. In this respect, we have simply begun to imitate the degradation of humanity that was formerly invested in an omnipotent and arbitrary God. In response to charges that absolute contingency might lead to political quietism, Meillassoux counters that the World of justice would mean nothing unless we had already hoped for it beforehand. A World of justice that came along at random would merely be an improved third World of thought: indeed, a perfect one. But it would have satisfied no craving, and would therefore have no redemptive power. For this reason, we must actively hope for the fourth World of justice for such a fourth World ever to arise. Not only justice, but beauty is dependent on such hope: for Meillassoux, who is here somewhat dependent on Kant, beauty means an accord between our human symbolization and the actual world, which could never be present in a World of the blessed any more than justice could. And just as a messianic figure is needed to incarnate our hope and then abandon power once the World of justice is realized, it is the figure of the child whose fragile contingency shows us a dignity and a demand for justice beyond all power. 3. Meillassoux Radicalized or Reversed Given the promising reception of Meillassoux’s first book, it would not be groundless to engage in early speculation about what it might take to earn him a place in the history of philosophy. Maybe this will never happen—who knows?—but quite possibly it will: his lucid argumentative methods and sheer philosophical imagination at least make him a good candidate to be read well into the future, especially following further elaboration in print of his mature system. Philosophy is often practiced as thought it were nothing more than the amassing of “knockdown arguments.” But this is no more insightful than saying that good architecture is the amassing of steal beams. It is true that poorly constructed building cannot stand for long, but sound construction is merely the first, indispensable step in building. In fact, I am inclined to say that what really makes a philosopher important is not being right, but being wrong . I mean this in a very specific sense. I once heard the interesting remark about twentieth century culture that “you have to remember that the sixties really happened in the seventies.” That is to say, it was in the 1970’s rather than the more honored 1960’s that civil rights, free love, long hair, and the rock and roll drug culture really took root. With respect to the history of philosophy, we might just as easily say: “you have to remember that Plato really happened in Aristotle,” that “Kant really happened in Hegel” or “Hume really happened in Kant,” or that “Husserl’s phenomenology first achieved its truth in Heidegger.” One becomes an important philosopher not by being right, but by attracting rebellious admirers who tell you that you are wrong , even as their own careers silently orbit around your own. To recruit faithful disciples may be comforting and flattering, but the greatest thinkers have generally had to experience refutation at the hands of their most talented heirs. For this reason, I would propose that we size up the magnitude of living thinkers not by deciding how many times they are right and wrong, but by asking instead: who would take the trouble to refute this author? For this reason I do not ask: “Is Meillassoux right?”, since I do not believe in the virtual God myself, nor am I convinced by any important aspect of Meillassoux’s philosophy. Instead, I ask if there are interesting ways to overturn him. Only by being overturned, by no longer remaining a contemporary, does one become a classic. Let’s begin with a simple model of refutation, which can be refined further at a later date once the basic point is established. One kind of refutation simply consists in saying: “This author is a complete idiot.” The refuter now walks away in celebration, and no link between the present and the future is built; all is reduced to rubble. But this sort of mediocre triumphalism is generally practiced by those who achieve little of their own, and is not especially interesting. Much more interesting is the sort of refutation that does not take its target to be a complete idiot. I would like to suggest that there are just two basic ways in which this can be done: radicalization and reversal . It has not escaped my notice that this is a fairly good match for the Deleuzian distinction between irony and humor. Whereas irony critiques and adopts the opposite principle of what it attacks, humor accepts what it confronts but pushes it into highly exaggerated form. The ironist is like the worker who sows chaos by rebeling and contradicting the boss, while the humorist is like the worker who follows orders to an absurdly literal degree, with equally chaotic results. Let’s start with a few examples. In Aristotle’s treatment of Plato, and Heidegger’s of Husserl, we find reversal. Plato’s eidei are transformed by Aristotle into mere secondary substances, and the individual worldly things despised by Plato become what is primary. For Husserl what is primary is whatever is present to consciousness, while for Heidegger this is precisely what is secondary, since the primary stuff of the world withdraws from any form of presence at all. As for radicalization, it is most easily found in the transformation of Kant by German Idealism: “Kant was right to wall off the things-in-themselves from human access, and simply should have realized that the thought of the Ding an sich is also a thought, and thereby the noumena are just special cases of the phenomena,” with much following from this discovery. It would also be easy to read Spinoza as a radicalizer of Descartes, and Berkeley and Hume as radicalized versions of Locke. Perhaps the distinction is now sufficiently clear. Admiring refutations are not those that say “Professor X is an idiot,” which is merely the flip side of the eager disciple’s fruitless “Professor X got everything right.” Instead, it will be some variant of one of the following two options: “Professor X is important, but got it backwards,” or “Professor X is important, but didn’t push things far enough.” In the history of philosophy these two latter cases have often been painful in purely human terms: Aristotle expresses sadness at refuting Plato, Kant is openly annoyed at Fichte, and Husserl feels betrayed and used by Heidegger. Rude handling from later figures almost seems to be the sine qua non of being a great philosopher. Now, it has already been claimed that Meillassoux is an emerging philosopher of the first importance, and by no less a figure than Alain Badiou: “It would be no exaggeration to say that Quentin Meillassoux has opened up a new path in the history of philosophy…” (Preface, vii). But rather than taking Badiou’s word for it, or rejecting his word, we might experiment by asking how Meillassoux could be radicalized or reversed. Are there interesting ways of doing this that might launch whole new schools of philosophy, unexpected or even condemned by Meillassoux himself? While no one can see the future, the present is poor when it is not riddled with virtual futures. The relation between philosophers and their predecessors and successors is always somewhat complicated, of course. But generally there is one central divergence at stake, which might be taken as the key to all the others. On this basis we could say that new thinkers primarily radicalize or primarily reverse the main ideas of their chief philosophical forerunner. There may be specific historical conditions and perhaps even personality traits connected with these two types, but this question can be left aside for now. More important for us is that radicalizers will generally be followed by reversers, and vice versa. Consider the textbook example of a reversal in the history of philosophy: Kant’s Copernican Revolution, which inverts the so-called dogmatic tradition that addresses the world itself, and makes the world revolve instead around the conditions by which it is known. While it is not completely impossible that Kant’s successors might have re-reversed this principle back into a new and stronger dogmatic realism, conditions were premature for such a move. Anyone doing this too early would likely have been an angry anti-Kantian reactionary rather than an original thinker in command of a genuinely new realist principle. The far more likely outcome is the one that actually happened: Kant’s reversal of his predecessors was viewed as incomplete, or as retaining lamentable bits of the traditional view, which despite his admirable breakthrough he was unable to shake off. This was the view of German Idealism, anyway. In similar fashion, Spinoza could also be viewed as a radicalizer of Descartes, who is equally accused of preserving various Scholastic dogmas in an otherwise radical project of philosophical reversal. The point is this: reversals in the history of thought tend to be followed soon thereafter by radicalizations of those reversals. The same may hold true in reverse: radicalizations might generally be followed by reversals, given that it is not always possible to be more radical than the radicals have already been. Consider the case of Husserl, who radicalizes Brentano’s early vagueness about what lies beyond immanent objectivity, and Twardowski’s assertion that there must be an external object lying outside the intentional content, by collapsing everything into the intentional sphere: there is no difference between the Berlin in my consciousness and the actual Berlin that is home to millions of people. It is difficult to see how one could be even more radical than Husserl’s idealist turn here. And thus the road is paved to Heidegger’s reversal of classical phenomenology, in which the key point is what lies deeper than any presence to consciousness: the Sein whose power and obscurity cannot be made exhaustively present, but only sends itself in historical epochs. In similar fashion we might also read Leibniz as a reverser of Spinoza’s radicalization, retrieving a strong sense of individual substance and a certain validity of what the Scholastics had said. Returning to Meillassoux, we might ask which kind of philosopher he is: a radicalizer or a reverser? At present, Meillassoux looks to me like a radicalizer (though for now his future remains shrouded in mist). He takes the correlationist tradition, which allows us to speak only of the relation between human and world, and tries to raise it into an even more extreme claim about the absolute contingency of everything. But whereas German Idealism did this by trying to collapse the distinction between thought and world entirely into the “thought” side, Meillassoux does it by trying to shift the non-absolute contingency of the thought-world correlate from epistemology to ontology. It is no longer a question of the inability of human knowledge to know what lies outside the correlate, but the inability of reality itself to be rooted in any definite laws. Furthermore, if we look at the various features of Meillassoux’s philosophy identified earlier tonight, all but one are already so radical that there is no obvious way to push them further. The one exception would be his claim that the world as a whole can change for no reason at any moment, coupled with the inconsistent claim that within a given world there are laws of nature that everything must follow. If gravitational attraction between all masses is a current law in our world, then for Meillassoux there can be no exceptions to this law for as long as it remains in force. A toppled vase will fall to the floor every time for sure,unless there is a cosmic change by which the laws of nature as a whole have altered. (This is reminiscent of the late medieval distinction between the absolute and ordained power of God, according to which God has the power to set or change the laws of nature, but not to contravene those laws locally once they are set.) On this point, to radicalize Meillassoux would simply be to say: there are no laws of nature even in the local sense. Everything that happens, even in the world here and now, is purely contingent and not governed by even a trace of law. And while this would be a more consistent development of Meillassoux’s thoughts on contingency, it is difficult to see how it could lead to a new philosophy. Instead, the admiring successors of Meillassoux are more likely to reverse one of his already sufficiently radical points. At least four candidates come to mind: *First, we have seen that Meillassoux thinks correlationism is challenged by a time before or after consciousness, but not by a space lying outside it. Perhaps this could be reversed into saying that spatial exteriority is the really crucial point. The arguments on this point are perhaps the least convincing in After Finitude (and do not even occur in the original French edition), and therefore it might be a candidate for the “blind spot” of which no philosopher is ever free. *Second, Meillassoux uses Cantor to claim that the contingency of laws of nature would not entail that they are unstable. A successor of Meillassoux might claim that it does make them unstable, and celebrate this fact. This person would then have to explain why common sense seems to encounter a relatively stable world despite its truly rampant instability. Whereas Meillassoux’s problem is to show how stability might exist despite contingency, this successor’s problem would be slightly different: to show why actual, full-blown instability might have the appearance of stability. *Third, Meillassoux claims that the primary qualities of things are those that can be mathematized. He might be reversed by a successor who says the opposite: the mathematizable qualities are the secondary ones, and the primary ones are those that elude symbolic formulation. While this is a perfectly valid possible objection to Meillassoux, it is one that is made in advance by some of his predecessors and is still made by some of his peers, making it less interesting for futurology than some of his other points. *Fourth and finally, whereas Meillassoux claims that God does not exist but might exist in the future, a successor might argue even more bizarrely that God has always existed but might vanish in the future. Let’s arbitrarily select the first of these possibilities, and imagine briefly where it might lead, if pursued in the future by admiring detractors. Meillassoux comes from the circle of Badiou, and some of Badiou’s most ardent admirers are found in Latin America. So, let’s imagine that towards mid-century some ingenious reversers of Meillassoux emerge in that portion of the Spanish-speaking world. Just for fun, let’s call them Castro and Chávez. And in order to avoid any confusion with the present-day politicians of those names, we will stipulate that Meillassoux’s great successors are both women. The philosopher Castro (we will suppose she comes from Peru) reverses Meillassoux’s argument that the ancestral or diachronic are what most threaten the human-world correlate. Instead, she claims that the diachronic does not threaten the correlate at all, and that we must instead look at space as what ruins the correlate and demands a strange new realism. What would such a philosophy look like? In order to determine this, we might ask what price Meillassoux pays for doing it the opposite way. As I see it, he pays in two separate ways. One is that laws of nature for him are contingent over time . The laws of nature apply to the universe as a whole at any given moment, and would be changed globally if they are ever changed at all. The second price he pays is that Meillassoux has no mereology , or theory of parts and wholes. Everything for him is on the level of the given, or immanent in experience, with the sole proviso that the laws governing this immanence might change without notice at any given moment. In reversing Meillassoux, Castro makes the following claims in the preface to her stunning debut book of 2045, The Cosmos and its Neighborhoods , rapidly translated from Spanish into all the languages of the world: Despite his brilliant analysis of the contingency of laws of nature over time, Meillassoux gets two important assumptions wrong. First, he allows for only one set of contingent laws to govern nature as a whole. Second, he allows laws to govern only the world that is immanent in experience, and thereby fails to explore the contingency among part-whole relations. In this book I will argue, first, that the laws of nature vary in any given instant between one region of the universe and the next; and second, that the world is made up of layers of parts and wholes that are also contingent with respect to one another. Those are the words of Castro. This may sound like a hopeless free-for-all of chaos, yet the book somehow succeeds in drawing some compelling deductions about how laws must vary from one place or level in the world to the next. Trapped in the limited horizon of 2011, and not yet inspired by the heavily balkanized political and technological situation of 2050 that somehow lends additional credence to Castro’s vision, we can only vaguely grasp what such a philosophy might look like. After this reversal of Meillassoux by Castro, the usual pattern leads us to expect a radicalization by Chávez, a young Argentine student of Castro. How could the already strange theories of Castro be radicalized? Perhaps as follows, in a disturbing new book entitled The Implosion of the Neighborhoods , which argues as follows: Castro was right to shift the Meillassouxian framework of contingency from time to space. However, in this respect she retained a surprisingly traditional opposition between the two. In this book I will show that time and space collapse into one another. This may sound too much like the discredited four-dimensional block universe of twentieth century physics and philosophy. However, the four-dimensional universe is a model biased in favor of space, merely adding an extra dimension to the commonsense spatial continuum while stipulating that the serial passage of time is an illusion. In this book I will argue instead for a one-dimensional space-time modeled after our experience of time, in which there is no simultaneous co-existence at all between different parts of the universe, or ‘neighborhoods’ as my esteemed teacher Castro has called them. Instead, the various portions of the universe link to one another by succession rather than by coexistence. Buenos Aires, New York, and Amsterdam do not exist simultaneously in the same landscape, but one after the other in the mind of some observer, and this observer can only be an observer much larger than any human. Against Meillassoux’s notion of a virtual God that does not exist now but might exist in the future, I will argue for an actual God that surveys the universe in sequence, thereby generating the illusion of spatial diversity and even the illusion of individual minds located within that diversity. Once this divine observer dies, the universe as a whole must perish. Again, these ideas are so bizarre that we of 2011 can barely comprehend them, just as Aristotle would have had a difficult time grasping the theories of Descartes. We could then perhaps imagine a further reversal of this theory, emanating from the intellectually resurgent Philippines of the twenty-second century. The Filipino School might argue that the universe is already dead, given the collapse of its spatial richness into the serial observations of a flimsy and mortal God. The virtual universe does not yet exist, but might exist in fully spatial form in the future, and this would require the death of God and the resulting liberation of God’s succession of images as independent, spatially situated realities. With a bit of sharpening, we might be able to make all of these imaginary thinkers more intuitively clear. Along with the history of philosophy, there might arise a new discipline generating imaginary futures for philosophy. The richness of Meillassoux’s system comes not from the fact that he is plausibly right about so many things, but because his philosophy offers such a treasury of bold statements ripe for being radicalized or reversed. He is a rich target for many still-unborn intellectual heirs, and this is what gives him the chance to be an important figure. NOTES 1. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude . Trans. R Brassier. (London: Continuum, 2008.) Page 5. The word “correlationism” does not appear in his doctoral thesis. As Meillassoux informed me in an email of February 8, 2011, he first coined this term in 2003 or 2004, while editing for publication a lecture he had given at the École normale supérieure on a day devoted to the theme of “Philosophy and Mathematics,” an event including Alain Badiou as one of the participants. 2. Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making . (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2011). 3. In an email of December 6, 2010, Meillassoux clarifies that in After Finitude he only deduces the impossibility of a “universal contradiction,” not of a determinate contradiction. In the same email he suggests that he can also prove the latter, though the proof is somewhat lengthier than the one found in After Finitude . 4. After Finitude (18-26), in the passage falling between the two sets of triple asterisks. These pages were sent by Meillassoux to translator Ray Brassier (in French) during the translation process, and do not appear in the original French version of the book. 5. Graham Harman, “Quentin Meillassoux: A New French Philosopher.” Philosophy Today 51.1 (2007): Pages 104-117. The passage where I raise the question of space can be found in the first column of page 107. 6. Vernes is first cited on p. 95 of After Finitude . See Jean-René Vernes, Critique de la raison aléatoire, ou Descartes contra Kant . (Paris: Aubier, 1982).  . (shrink)
Manuel DeLanda is one of the few admitted realists in present-day continental philosophy, a position he claims to draw from Deleuze. DeLanda conceives of the world as made up of countless layers of assemblages, irreducible to their parts and never dissolved into larger organic wholes. This article supports DeLanda’s position as a refreshing new model for continental thought. It also criticizes his movement away from singular individuals toward disembodied attractors and topological structures lying outside all specific beings. While endorsing DeLanda’s (...) realism, I reject his shift from the actual to the virtual. (shrink)
Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) influence has long been felt not just in philosophy, but also in such fields as art, architecture, and literary studies. Yet his difficult terminology has often scared away interested readers lacking an academic background in philosophy. In this new entry in the Ideas Explained series, author Graham Harman shows that Heidegger is actually one of the simplest and clearest of thinkers. His writings and analyses boil down to a single powerful idea: being is not presence. In any (...) human relation with the world, our thinking and even our acting do not fully exhaust the world. Something more always withdraws from our grasp. As Harman shows, Heidegger understood that human beings are not lucid scientific observers staring at the world and describing it, but instead are thrown into a world where light is always mixed with shadow. The book concludes with a comprehensible discussion of the philosopher’s notoriously opaque concept of the fourfold. (shrink)
The context for these interviews was a seminar [Peter Gratton] conducted on speculative realism in the Spring 2010. There has been great interest in speculative realism and one reason Gratton surmise[s] is not just the arguments offered, though [Gratton doesn't] want to take away from them; each of these scholars are vivid writers and great pedagogues, many of whom are in constant contact with their readers via their weblogs. Thus these interviews provided an opportunity to forward student questions about their (...) respective works. Though each were conducted on different occasions, the interviews stand as a collected work, tying together the most classical questions about “realism” to ancillary movements about the non-human in politics, ecology, aesthetics, and video gaming—all to point to future movements in this philosophical area. (shrink)
This article attempts to develop the abandoned occasionalist model of causation into a credible present-day theory. If objects can never exhaust one another through their relations, it is hard to know how they can ever interact at all. This article handles the problem by dividing objects into two kinds: the real objects that emerge from Heidegger’s tool-analysis and the intentional objects of Husserl’s phenomenology. Each of these objects turns out to be split by an additional rift between the object as (...) an enduring unit and its plurality of traits. This explains Heidegger’s notorious ‘fourfold’ model of the thing. This article shows that Heidegger’s Geviert must be reinterpreted as a system of four tensions that can be identified as time, space, essence, and eidos. Time and space can no longer be left as peerless dimensions of the cosmos. Instead, they are shown to arise from the tensions between things and their qualities. And for this reason they are joined by essence (in the classical sense of the term) and eidos (in Husserl’s sense, not Plato’s) as two out of four basic features of the fabric of the world. (shrink)
continent. 1.3 (2011): 171-179. Since 2007 there has been a great deal of interest in speculative realism, launched in the spring of that year at a well-attended workshop in London. It was always a loose arrangement of people who shared few explicit doctrines and no intellectual heroes except the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, an improbable patron saint for a school of metaphysics. Lovecraft serves as a sort of mascot for the “speculative” part of speculative realism, since his grotesque semi-Euclidean monsters (...) symbolize the rejection of everyday common sense to which speculative realism aspires. The “realism” part of speculative realism was aimed not at idealism, which few people openly defend today, but at what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism”: the view that philosophy cannot speak of human or world in isolation, but only of a primal correlation or rapport between the two.1 The goal of the speculative realists was to bring the things-in-themselves back into discussion, though there was ferocious disagreement amongst us as to how these things could be talked about: whether the things themselves remained inaccessible to direct access as in Kantian and Heideggerian philosophy, or whether they could be the object of direct mathematical insight as for Alain Badiou and his circle. This diversity of opinion led to an early break-up for the speculative realist movement, which quickly broke into numerous splinter groups bearing little resemblance to one another. In an earlier essay published in this journal,2 I discussed Meillassoux’s “speculative materialism”; a more detailed account can now be found in my recently published book on his philosophy.3 In this essay I will discuss the “object-oriented” branch of speculative realism, with which I have a more direct personal involvement as one of its founders. One of the primary differences between speculative materialism and object-oriented ontology (OOO) concerns the point just mentioned. Both schools are united in their resistance to the banal claims of continental philosophy to stand “beyond” the realism/anti-realism dispute (Husserl and Heidegger, unfortunately, must take the blame for such assertions). Yet there remains a question as to what extent reality can be known . Are the things-in-themselves directly accessible to humans or not? Simply put, the answer of speculative materialism is yes, while the answer of object-oriented ontology is no. The question can be restated as follows. We might summarize the philosophical position of Kant by saying that he makes two basic claims: 1. Human knowledge is finite, since the things-in-themselves can be thought but never known. 2. The human-world relation (mediated by space, time, and the categories) is philosophically privileged over every other sort of relation; philosophy is primarily about human access to the world, or at least must take this access as its starting point. Object-oriented philosophy agrees with the first Kantian point and disagrees with the second, while for speculative materialism it is precisely the reverse. For object-oriented philosophy, the things-in-themselves remain forever beyond our grasp, but not because of a specifically human failure to reach them. Instead, relations in general fail to gasp their relata, and in this sense the ghostly things-in-themselves haunt inanimate causal relations no less than the human-world relation, which no longer stands at the center of philosophy. For speculative materialism it is exactly the opposite. Here, humans remain at the center of philosophy, though their knowledge is no longer finite. Humans are capable of the absolute; any qualities that can be mathematized are primary qualities that can be known absolutely, with no dark residue lying behind them. And since this “absolute” exists even when we sleep or die, speculative materialism often claims to be a form of realism rather than a transcendental idealism. The present essay is confined to the internal challenges of the object-oriented approach, the one I prefer myself. 1. Objects In the beginning, philosophy was an anti -object-oriented enterprise. Normal human experience seems to confront a world broken into units: natural objects such as flowers, stars, and wild animals, artificial objects ranging from pirate ships to copper mines, and both the natural and artificial kinds ranging widely in size from tiny to gigantic. Despite our constant experience of objects in daily life, philosophy began in the pre-Socratic era as an effort to find a more basic reality lying beneath all these entities. For various pre-Socratics the world was made of immortal elements such as water or air, of four elements in combination mixed by love and hate, of atoms swerving in the void, or of a formless apeiron rumbling beneath all tangible things. No matter which of these is chosen as the foundation of the world, the familiar individual entities of the cosmos are not treated as fundamental. In this way all the flowers, stars, wild animals, pirate ships, and copper mines, not to mention the objects of religion and flat-out superstition, are undermined . They are treated as composite things built of something more fundamental; in the pre-Socratic period, it was simply a question of deciding what was the most fundamental element. Nor is this attitude confined to ancient pre-Socratic times, since we find the same thing even now: in the crude present-day materialism that holds objects to be nothing more than conglomerates of molecules, atoms, quarks and electrons, or strings; in philosophies of the so-called “pre-individual,” which treats the world as a semi-articulate lump arbitrarily carved into pieces by the human intellect; and in even more recent philosophies that treat the world as a mathematical structure that breaks into isolated “real patterns” only at different levels of observational scale.4 Let’s use the term “undermining” for those theories which think that objects are too shallow to be the truth. Here, the real action supposedly unfolds at a deeper layer than individual things, whether that of tiny elemental pieces or of a semi-liquid, holistic quasi-lump. But for those who wish to denigrate objects as the basic theme of philosophy, there is another way to do it. Rather than undermining objects by dissolving them downward into some component element, we can dissolve them upward or “overmine” them, to coin a new English term. Rather than viewing objects as too shallow to be the truth, we can treat them as too falsely deep to be the truth. This happens whenever a philosophy tells us that an object is nothing more than how it appears to the observer; or an arbitrary bundling of immediately perceived qualities; or when it tells us that there are only “events,” not underlying substances; or that objects are real only insofar as they perceive or affect other things. In all these cases, objects are treated as a useless hypothesis, a false depth lying beneath the immediate givens of consciousness or the concrete events of the world. As I have written elsewhere, it is also possible to combine overmining and undermining in a single philosophy. This happens most often in scientific materialism, which undermines when it finds tinier components from which our everyday objects are built, but overmines when it thinks these tiny pieces are nothing over and above their mathematizable properties. In short, a large part of present-day philosophy is devoted to contempt for individual objects, which it denounces as the gullible fantasies of common sense– or “folk psychology,” as it is arrogantly phrased by a number of scientistic hacks. The main counter-tradition to undermining and overmining is, of course, the Aristotelian tradition. Here individual entities are treated as the primary substance, which both undermining and overmining philosophies enjoy mocking as “mid-sized physical objects.” But it seems to me that the Aristotelian tradition is closer to the truth than the other two. Admittedly, there are numerous features of traditional substance that we might not wish to accept. Consider the philosophy of Leibniz, for instance. While Leibniz distinguishes between substance and aggregate, we do not have to agree with him that a mushroom is a substance but an army is not. While Leibniz holds that every substance is eternal, we can follow Aristotle’s brave decision and recognize destructible substances such as plants, insects, and humans, which he was the first in Ancient Greece to do. Nor is it necessary to agree with Leibniz that substances have no windows and do not affect one another directly (though in fact I do agree with Leibniz on this point, if not with the others). Anyhow, we can see that Aristotle, the Scholastics, and Leibniz, with their primary substances and substantial forms, make up an early object-oriented school surrounded on both sides by legions of underminers and overminers who reject individual entities as the basic stuff of the world. But I myself came to that tradition indirectly, through a less obvious but more contemporary tradition of object-oriented thought: phenomenology. Here I mean both Husserl and Heidegger, each of them making a different innovation in the philosophy of objects. We should speak briefly about these two different but deeply related currents. Like Brentano before him, Husserl is concerned with the sphere of intentionality, or “immanent objectivity.” Suspending all theories about an extra-phenomenal outside world, Husserl analyzes the phenomena as they appear to us, with attention to the subtlest contours of our dealings with phenomena such as blackbirds or mailboxes. There can be no question that Husserl is an idealist to the core—even in the Logical Investigations— for him it makes no sense to say that there could be realities not observable in principle by consciousness. Nonetheless, Husserl often feels like a realist. The atmosphere of his writings is one in which individual things seem opaque and resistant, not entirely exhausted by their appearance in the mind. By contrast, one rarely or never has this sense when reading someone like Hegel, at least not when it comes to individual entities. Despite the scholarly precision of his thinking, Husserl often seems puzzled by the many facets of concrete individual things, rather than merely overmining them and reducing them to their appearance in consciousness. This paradox must be considered briefly. Like Brentano, Husserl is focused on intentionality, which means: on objects lying before the mind. All perception, judgment, love, and hate is perception, judgment, love, or hate of some object . This object is never a concealed thing-in-itself lying beyond access, but purely immanent: intentionality means immanent objectivity. But in one of the most important passages of the Logical Investigations , Husserl takes a distance from Brentano when determining exactly what this means. Whereas Brentano views intentionality as a matter of “experienced contents,” for Husserl intentionality consists of “object-giving acts.” The difference may sound dry and technical, but I would call it Husserl’s most important contribution to philosophy. To say that our encounter with an apple consists of “experienced contents” is to say that we experience hundreds or thousands of qualities on a democratic plane, all of them pressed together into a single thing called an apple. The exact shape of the apple, its temperature in the hand, its degree of hardness, the exact profile it displays in this very moment, its precise momentary sweetness—all these are equally qualities of the apple as an experienced content. Husserl views the situation differently. For Husserl, the experience of an apple is an object-giving act quite apart from the list of qualities it now seems to possess. We can toss the apple in the air, view it from numerous angles, observe it in various degrees of sunlight, describe it in moods of euphoria and in crippling depression, but for us it remains the same apple in all these cases. To use Husserl’s famous technical term, there are countless “adumbrations” ( Abschattungen ) of the apple. The apple itself is not obtained by adding up all the different surfaces and profiles it can display; rather, the apple is there from the start as an enduring unit that exhibits numerous different facets at different times. Against all the empiricist theories, Husserl establishes a permanent rift between intentional objects and the various intentional qualities they might have at any given time. In the realm of conscious experience, objects are not “bundles of qualities,” but units lying deeper than any display of surface qualities. In short, there is a permanent tension in the sphere of intentional experience between objects and their qualities. It seems to me that this is why Husserl feels like a realist: for him, intentional objects are not just bundles of qualities lying before the mind, but places of fracture where an object grinds up against its own qualities, displaying different qualities at different times even while remaining distinct from them. As far as I am aware, this is also something completely new in the history of philosophy. It is true that Husserl cuts off the real world, collapsing everything into an immanent phenomenal sphere. But precisely in so doing, he is able to discover a previously unknown drama within the intentional sphere, which is broken up into objects with constantly shifting faces. Instead of calling them intentional objects, I prefer to call them “sensual” objects for at least two reasons. For one thing, the phrase “intentional objects” is dry and technical, unpleasant to repeat as frequently as it needs to be when we discuss such topics. But more importantly, the word “intentional” is used ambiguously; many philosophers use it to refer to the object lying outside the mental sphere, a distant object at which our thoughts “point.” But that is not what Brentano and Husserl mean when they speak of intentionality, and thus the phrase “intentional object” often leads to confusion. For this reason, we can speak instead of a permanent tension between sensual objects and sensual qualities, or between an apple that remains the same apple from one moment to the next, and the wildly fluctuating kaleidoscope of its surface features. Here we can see how the strife between object and quality unfolds in the purely sensual arena described by phenomenology. And this brings us to Heidegger. If Husserl turns philosophy into a description of how things appear in consciousness, we know that for Heidegger our primary mode of dealing with things is not through their appearing to consciousness. The place where Heidegger breaks with Husserl is the famous tool-analysis published in Being and Time , but first presented to his Freiburg students eight years earlier, in 1919. A brief summary will be enough for our purposes here. What is key for Heidegger is that insofar as something is present to consciousness, it is merely present-at-hand ( vorhanden ). But what is present to our minds in this way is only a tiny proportion of the entities with which we are involved. The air we breathe, the floor on which we stand, the heart, kidneys, and lungs that function within us, all tend not to be present insofar as they are doing their work. As every reader of Heidegger knows, it is usually broken equipment that comes to conscious attention. Equipment in its seamless functioning is ready-to-hand rather than present-at-hand, zuhanden rather than vorhanden . A few additional points need to be made. In the first place, the tool-analysis is not limited to a specific kind of entity called “tools” in the narrow sense, which would include hammers, drills, cars, guns, and computers, while excluding family, friends, house pets, and God. Instead, every entity has both sides: ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. This is not because we “use” our family and friends in the same way that we exploit hammers and drills, but because our friends no less than our tools are deeper than any possible access we might have to them. The hammer-in-itself is not the same as our perception of it at any given moment. But the same holds for people, and just as much for the cryptic, concealed God who communicates only by signs. In the second place, we need to avoid the frequent reading of the tool-analysis as equivalent to a distinction between praxis and theory, as if Heidegger were merely telling us that all perception of hammers and theories about hammers were grounded in a pre-theoretical use of them. The problem with this interpretation is clear enough: for if tools are always deeper than our perceptions or theories of them, they are also deeper than our use of them. To sit in a chair is no closer a relation to the chair than thinking about it is; in both cases, the chair itself retains an unexhausted surplus deeper than our relation with it. It is not a difference between theory and praxis, but a difference between the things themselves and our relations with them. But there is one more step to the argument, one that Heidegger never considered. The failure of both theory and praxis to exhaust the things of the world is not some tragic mental feature of humans and a few smart animals. Instead, it is a limitation of relationality in general. Objects withdraw from each other in the case of inanimate causation no less than in the human use of tools. Rain striking a tin roof does not make intimate contact with the reality of the tin any more than the monkeys on the roof or the impoverished resident of the tin-roofed shack are able to do. Let it simply be added that the withdrawal of objects from one another in causal relations turns causality into a serious philosophical problem. For if objects cannot touch directly, then how do they influence one another at all? There must be some third term, some medium through which they interact. Causation must be indirect or vicarious rather than direct and immediate. The final point to be made is that Heidegger’s withdrawn, sub-phenomenal world of tool-beings must be made up of individual things. This apparently runs counter to the spirit of Being and Time , where all tools seem to melt together into a single system: “there is no such thing as ‘an’ equipment,”5 as Heidegger puts it. This even seems true in his later writings on “the thing,” where the concealed portion of individual entities is called “earth,” and the earth is generally treated as a monolithic lump rather than a set of fully articulated individuals.6 It might seem as though the subterranean world of being were a rumbling, unified chunk broken into pieces only by human consciousness, a conclusion drawn by Emmanuel Levinas during his ardently Heideggerian phase in the 1940’s.7 But this is impossible. Hammers break in different ways from drills, which break in different ways from hearts, kidneys, and lungs. The shocks and surprises generated by failing equipment are not random. The world is not a single lump broken into pieces by consciousness, but consists of individual pieces from the start. To summarize, we can definitely say that for Heidegger there is a real sub-phenomenal world in a way that is not true for Husserl. By pushing Heidegger a bit beyond what he wanted to say, we can also conclude that this real world is made up of individual objects that are withdrawn from all theoretical, practical, and even causal access. And furthermore, each of these real objects must have specific real qualities. For as Leibniz observed,8 even the simple unified monads must have diverse qualities: otherwise they would be interchangeable, with hammers equally able to function as drills, kidneys, dolphins, or monkeys depending on the whim of the observer. But this is ridiculous. When considering Husserl, we found that the sensual realm was broken into both objects and qualities. By pushing Heidegger’s tool-analysis just slightly, we find an analogous distinction between real objects and their real qualities. We thus have a world made of four terms: real objects, real qualities, sensual objects, sensual qualities. I have often made the case that this is what Heidegger was aiming at with his mysterious theory of das Geviert (“the fourfold”) and will not repeat that case here. What is more important is that we now have a model to play with that points to a number of puzzles and to possible gaps in our understanding, much like any scientific model. Let’s draw a few more conclusions from this idea before getting into some of the trickier questions it raises. 2. The Fourfold and Vicarious Causation At first the model seems to consist of four terms linked by just two tensions. Within the confines of experience, there is a strife between sensual objects and their shifting sensual qualities, precisely as described by Husserl. Even if I sit motionless before a bowl of pears and apples, these objects vary in profile depending on the angle and distance at which I sit, and vary in color depending on the increase or decrease of afternoon shadow in the room, or the lamplight and candles in which they are viewed after nightfall; their imagined tastiness alters as my mood and appetite alter. This is true all the more if I actively stand and maneuver through the room to view them from dramatically different vantage points, and they vary all the more for living species of different size and capacity, whether it be fruit flies or even monkeys. But within certain limits, these shifting features and contours and possibilities of objects do not turn them into different objects. If we consider that they are merely caricatures, exaggerated versions of real pears and apples, then we allude to a dark subterranean underworld of beings that no perception and no relation can ever touch. This underworld, too, is made of objects, but objects that exceed any attempt to grasp them. Since we deduce that they must be individuals rather than a single inarticulate or semi-articulate lump (for otherwise, hammers and pears would not be able to surprise us in specifically hammer-fashion and pear-manner), these real objects must have qualities as well. But for the very same reason, there cannot be a total disconnection between these two realms. The real must be able to affect the sensual, to surge up into the visual realm when tools break or by other means. There must be various crossovers between these two kingdoms—some relation between real objects and sensual qualities, and also between sensual objects and real qualities. When speaking of Husserl, we have so far referred only to a strife found only within the sensual realm. A sensual object has countless adumbrations, countless sensual qualities, depending on the manner in which it is observed. But Husserl already knows that there is more going on than this. A pear, apple, or hammer not only bathes in a shifting flux of qualities that portray it according to different adumbrations. There are also truly important qualities that these objects must have in order to remain what they are for us. Through the method of eidetic variation, we strip away the noise and confetti of the accidental profiles of a thing, and move toward some sense of what the thing really needs in order to be what it is in the sensual realm. True, Husserl thinks we can determine what these important properties are through a kind of direct intellectual or essential intuition, but we need not follow him on this point. Instead, we need only agree that there is a distinction between the wild masquerade of a thing’s surface appearance and the deeper, enduring apple-qualities that the apple must retain for as long as we acknowledge it to be this very apple. In this way we are led to see that the sensual object crosses into the underworld through its possession of real qualities as well. They are real because they withdraw from direct access no less than efficient hammers or unnoticed lungs and kidneys do. In short, Husserl’s intentional objects, which we can rename “sensual objects” for the reasons mentioned earlier, are a remarkable crossroads where both sensual and real qualities belong to the same sensual object, as if the same planet had both visible and concealed moons. We now have a third tension in our model, and the kingdoms of real and sensual are now linked by a strange sort of bridge, crossing between shadow and light: a rigorous scientific phenomenology generating the sort of strange communicational infrastructure between real and unreal that might be found in a fairy tale. We should also ask about another unusual crossing, the one between real objects and sensual qualities. And here we are in luck, since Heidegger’s tool-analysis already points the way. When the hammer shatters in our hand or the floor collapses beneath our feet, we experience a kind of shock. These tool-beings no longer function invisibly or simply withdraw unnoticed into shadow. Instead, numerous features of the hammer now erupt explicitly into view. But contrary to some readings of Heidegger, the hammer-object itself never does so. The real hammer remains just as distant as ever before, even when it is “broken.” Yet we are able to get a strange indirect sense of it anyway: our minds do not encounter it directly, but allude to it, or see the hammer without seeing it. The sensual qualities of the hammer no longer just swirl around the phenomenal hammer in the mind, but seem to be enslaved to a dark and hidden object that forever eludes our grasp despite its apparently obtrusive malfunction. And here we have the fourth tension in the model, one between real objects and sensual qualities. There is no need here for a detailed discussion of Heidegger’s fourfold, which is analogous but not identical to the quadruple structure presented here. Although I have argued elsewhere that his earth, sky, gods, and mortals have some analogy to the fourfold of real objects, real qualities, sensual objects, and sensual qualities—and have argued further that Heidegger was on the scent of this model as early as 1919—what is really of interest are the four just-described tensions between the four poles, which he notices but never names. He speaks of the interrelations between the four solely in poetic terms as mirrors, dances, weddings, and songs. But we are now in a position to give them more familiar names. Few topics are of greater philosophical interest than time and space. Daydreaming children dig for paradoxes here, as do Nobel Prize winners and the criminally insane. But one common assumption among all these groups seems to be that time and space are peerless queens, or special dimensions of the cosmos devoid of any rivals. Kant sequesters them in the Transcendental Aesthetic, on a different footing from the categories of the understanding. But the polarized model of objects and qualities allows us to integrate time and space into a wider theory in which they are just two dimensions of the world among others. According to the object-oriented model only the present exists: only objects with their qualities, locked into whatever their duels of the moment might be. In that sense, time seems to be illusory, though not for the usual reason that time is just a fourth spatial dimension always already present from the start. Instead, time does not exist simply because only the present ever exists. Nonetheless, time as a lived experience cannot be denied. We do not encounter a static frame of reality, but seem to feel a passage of time. It is not a pure chaos shifting wildly from one second to the next, since there is change within apparent endurance. Sensual objects endure despite swirling oscillations in their surface adumbrations, and this is precisely what is meant by the experience of time . Time can be defined as the tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities. Turning to space, one thing we know is that space cannot be located entirely within the sensual realm. John Locke noted that our experience of space is in some way an illusion. Everything in experience itself is flat and equidistant, as seen from the fact that babies reach with equal confidence for nearby toys, distant doorways, and the moon. Space is not directly accessible to our senses, but inferred, and this skill must be acquired at a specific point in child development. Despite what Leibniz claims, space is not the realm of relation, but of both relation and non-relation. There would be no space if everything were pressed directly up against us. Space means that there is something at a distance from us, or withheld from us. But this is precisely what Heidegger gives us in the tool-analysis. The hammer seems to be an entirely domestic creature of our experience, until it breaks, and then we recognize that there is a hammer-thing at some distance from us, not entirely a creature of our experience. Space can be defined as the tension between real objects and sensual qualities. Perhaps it is now clear where we are going. Two tensions still remain, and though they are less often the topic of romantic speculation than are time and space, they belong on the same footing in the model and hence deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. In Husserl we found a third tension between sensual objects and their real qualities. Better yet, he already names it for us: eidos . Eidos is the tension between a sensual object in experience and the withdrawn pivotal features that we can only hint at rather than confronting directly. And finally, we should not forget the fourth tension, the only one that has nothing to do with sensual experience at all: the tension between real objects and real qualities, which we can simply deduce and never experience at all. For this unity and duality in the heart of real things, the traditional name is essence , and there is no problem with using it here. Essence is the tension between a real thing and its real qualities. Once the terms are defined in this way, the world can be viewed as the composite drama of time, space, essence, and eidos, so that the object-oriented model of the world is further enriched. And in fact, there are more than just these four. We also need to consider the relations between real and sensual objects, and between real and sensual qualities, as well as the relations between each of the four poles and another of its own kind. That yields ten terms rather than four, but there is no point developing the other six here. For those who are interested, they are classified in my book The Quadruple Object .9 For now we can leave open the question as to whether the coincidence of this number ten with that of Aristotle’s ten categories is significant or not. Before moving to the conclusion, we can add three more interrelated ideas to the mix. It was clear from the start that if real objects withdraw from one another, they cannot affect one another directly. Between real objects, only indirect or vicarious causation is possible. There must be an intermediary between any two real objects, and two points are evident here. First, this intermediary cannot itself be a real object, or there would simply be an endless process in which the intermediary would need further intermediaries between itself and the other objects, with the result that nothing would ever succeed in touching anything else. In fact, this is the very criticism I made in Prince of Networks of the model of indirect causation offered by Latour in Pandora’s Hope , in which actors can touch only by means of an intermediate actor, but since all actors are of the exact same type for Latour, none of them is truly capable of linking with anything else. Second, the intermediary must be capable of making direct contact with both of the other terms. Now, there is only one place where that can happen, and that is the interior of an object. This idea also comes from Husserl, though he never draws the needed radical conclusions from it. Namely, Husserl points out the paradox that intentionality is both one and two. On the one hand, in intentionality there is I myself and then there is the pine tree, not fusing together into a single lump, since the very fact that I am perceiving it proves otherwise. But on the other hand, the intentional relation between me and the pine tree must certainly be one, since we are joined together in the perception rather than being painfully and eternally separated. Given that perceptions are generally held to occur inside the mind, the easy conclusion would be that I and the sensual pine tree meet inside the mind. Husserl implies this point, and it is stated quite openly in the altogether different (and completely overrated) system of the neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger. The problem with this notion is that I myself cannot be simultaneously the whole of the relation and merely half of it. The sensual object and I cannot meet inside of me. Instead, our encounter occurs on the interior of the relation between me and the real tree (which must be indirect, but there is no need to complicate things here). When the tree and I somehow form a link, we become a new object; every relation forms a new real object. This idea will be resisted for the simple reason that we normally think of “objects” as solid physical things that hold together firmly, whereas something like the relation between me and the tree seems much too flimsy and transient. But remember, the definition of a real object is simply a unified thing with specific qualities that withdraws from any attempt to grasp it. The relation between me and the tree certainly meets these criteria: the intentional relation must be one, or it could not occur; it must have specific qualities, or it would be interchangeable with any other relation; and it withdraws from any attempt to grasp it, since I can never exhaustively grasp my own relation with the tree, and a fortiori the tree can never do so. So, what we have is the contact between me and the sensual tree on the interior of the relation between me and the real one. The same could be true in reverse, assuming the tree can perceive me in some fashion, but this would be a different and parallel relation in which the real tree encountered a sensual caricature of me. This may sound like a mere panpsychist amusement as long as a tree is one of the two terms. But consider a relation between two people, and the insight suddenly becomes much more threatening. A relation between friends or lovers then splits into two simultaneous but asymmetrical relations in which each person deals with the other as if with a ghost. In any case, we should add that this contact between a real object and a sensual one, on the interior of a third object, is precisely the sort of direct contact we are looking for. For contrary to some readings of Husserl, intentional objects never “hide.” If I see an apple from one specific angle, the apple is not “hidden” behind that current profile such that we would have to run hysterically through all possible angles, distances, and lighting conditions in order to add up all the profiles to amass one apple. Instead, the apple is there from the start, from the mere fact that I recognize it, and is simply covered over with fleeting qualities like cheap jewelry or encrustations of brine. Finally, we need to reject the idea that all objects must be in relation with other objects at any given time. Although all objects are made up of relations between component objects, it is not necessarily the case that all objects enter into larger components in turn. While it may be the case that there is an infinite regress of entities downward into the depths of the world, it is not the case that there is an infinite progress upward. There may be countless real entities that exist (since their components have already formed them) which have not yet managed to have an effect on anything else in the world. These can be called sleeping objects, or dormant objects. They exist, but currently affect nothing. Perhaps there are millions of entities that remain in this state forever, passing through the world with the purely unlucky fate of never affecting or being affected by anything else at all. 3. Some Paradoxes But right now I would like to consider the reverse case, that there may be things that do have an effect on other things but without being real. There is a relevant term here that has reversed its meaning over time: “flat ontology.” When the phrase “flat ontology” was used by Roy Bhaskar in the early 1970’s in his book on the realist theory of science, it was a polemical term. Namely, he used it to refer to theories that flatten the world into its accessibility to human observers; it was a dismissive phrase aimed at positivism, not a flattering description of realism. The meaning of the phrase was reversed in 2006 by Bhaskar’s admirer Manuel DeLanda. For DeLanda, “flat ontology” simply means that all entities must be treated alike. That it to say, it is an anti -reductionist term, such that armies, cities, and herds of cattle might be just as real as steel girders and atoms of potassium. “Flat” has now reversed its meaning: rather than referring to a world without levels in which everything inhabits the realm of human consciousness, it means instead a world in which all levels are on the same playing field. There can be no better example of a perfectly flat ontology than the early philosophy of Bruno Latour. At that point in Latour’s career, all human and inhuman things, all chunks of physical matter and people and cartoon characters, are equally actors . What makes all things actors, despite the vast differences between them, is that they have an effect on other things. As Latour puts it as recently as 1999 in Pandora’s Hope , to be real means “to modify, transform, perturb, or create” something else. Reality is defined not by what it is, but by what it does. Not everything is equally strong , since the Chinese government affects more things than does a stick figure drawn in the notebook of a Chinese schoolboy, but everything is equally real , since even that stick figure has some faint emotional resonance in the boy’s mind and is therefore not just an empty hole of non-being, while the mighty effect of the Chinese government on its citizens is different only in degree from the stick figure, even if that degree of difference is huge. Reality for the early Latour means having an effect on other things. And just as for Aristotle all humans are equally humans and all trees equally trees, for the early Latour all actors are equally actors. But I just finished claiming that there are objects called dormant objects that affect nothing, not now and perhaps not ever, depending on how things unfold. The question I want to address briefly as this essay comes to a conclusion is whether the reverse is also true: are there things that have an effect despite not being real? And here is where I have been in disagreement with another philosopher friend, Levi Bryant of the Larval Subjects blog.10 For Bryant, anything that has an effect of any sort is real, and given that Chinese stick figures, Popeye, and the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft all have some greater or lesser effect on someone’s moods or the sales of some cinema or bookstore, all are real as well. This apparent reality of all fictional characters has led some to accuse Bryant of defending an absurdly inflationary universe, in which all actual and possible things are real. For Bryant and the early Latour, then, reality and efficacy are interchangeable terms. And given that lots of different things can have an effect, this seems to balloon the scope of reality to an absurd degree. What I want to suggest here is that just as not all real things have an effect (at least not in any given moment), not all effective things are real. Unlike Bryant and the early Latour, this puts me automatically in the good graces of Ockham’s Razor, given that I can multiply merely sensual objects as much as I please and let them have as many effects as possible without ever saying that they are “real,” that they have autonomous existence outside their presence in the experience of some other entity. Stated differently, I do not advocate a purely flat ontology. Certainly I would agree with Bryant and DeLanda that there are real entities at all levels of scale; I am completely in accord with their anti-reductionist platform. But I do not agree further with Bryant that just because something in the mind is having an effect on me, that it is therefore real. At first this might seem to place me in the same camp as what might be called the epistemological wing of speculative realism. For such people it is ridiculous to think that entities such as Popeye are real, and equally ridiculous to believe in many other things experienced by everyday common sense. Their goal is to destroy what they call the “manifest image” in favor of the true scientific image of things. Epistemology here means a way to debunk gullible Christians, alchemists, and Latourians, and make the world safe for science. In their darkly clouded eyes, while Bryant wants to say that all images are real, they want to insist that some are real and some are false. However, I have nothing to do with this position, for the simple reason that I think all images are false . And this is what makes my position more in keeping with Ockham’s Razor, since it is only this position that never confuses the sensual with the real, while the epistemological wing of speculative realism grants reality to countless objects that are really nothing more than images, even if we agree to call them “scientific” ones. For me nothing sensual is ever real, no matter how many effects it might have. Here is another way to put it. We can talk about the sensual trees, chairs, cartoon characters, and hallucinated unicorns that might populate human experience. The question is sometimes asked how we know which of these sensual objects correspond to things in the real world and which do not; “criteria” are then demanded for sorting the wheat from the chaff, so that we might praise our images of quarks as truly corresponding to something real while ridiculing or exterminating our manifest folk images of Popeye and unicorns. Yet the problem must be reframed. None of our images “correspond” to anything at all; none of them bear any isomorphic resemblance to the real objects that withdraw into darkness. All are fictions. Or to put it in Latourian terms, all are translations . We can see this by considering that no matter how excellent our scientific concept of a tree may be, this concept is not itself a tree : the concept of the tree may grow every summer just as a tree does, but it neither sheds leaves nor bears fruit. Whenever I raise this complaint, it is objected that it is a “straw man,” since no one really believes that a real tree and its image are the same thing. In response I say that of course no says this, because it is too ridiculous to maintain for an instant. Nonetheless, this ridiculous doctrine is directly entailed by the theory that the image of Popeye does not correspond to anything but the image of a tree does correspond. All they might be able to add is that while the image of a tree is simply a form or structure, the real tree is that same form or structure stamped in physical matter. But this would give us nothing but a dubious traditional metaphysics of form and matter, its banality barely concealed by the table-pounding aggressions of hack scientism. The truth, I believe, is that no sensual objects “correspond” to real ones, just as no translations of Shakespeare into French or Dutch “correspond” to the English text. Not all translations are equal– there are better and worse translations of Shakespeare, just as there are better and worse meals with which to catch the flavor of certain wines, and better and worse ways (in Latour’s best example) to refine crude oil into gasoline for your car’s tank, which by no means implies that the gasoline is a “copy” of the crude oil. This is not relativism, but rather the most hardcore possible realism . It is not relativism, because there really are better and worse translations; it is hardcore realism because it takes real objects so seriously that it holds them to be irreplaceable by any conceptual model—no model of a banana or apple, however detailed, can step into the world and become a banana or apple. In short, I join Bryant wholeheartedly in rejecting this cop’s-fantasy epistemological project of distinguishing between bad commonsense images and good scientific ones, which would reduce the greatness of philosophy to a series of small-time drug busts. But that said, what about Bryant’s further claim that fictions are real? As I see it, the problem needs to be reframed. Granted that all real objects can be converted into translations, the question is this: when can translations retroactively affect the real? It cannot be denied that this happens regularly. Our sensual experience of a room may displease us, and this leads us to rearrange the furniture, thereby causing shifts among real objects. The insufficient sweetness of strawberries may lead to genetic work that alters those very strawberries. A fictional character can provoke genuine suicides, as famously happened with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther . Some loose political ideas in the heads of a dozen Egyptian protestors might turn into a real Constitution that affects millions of people for generations. Even an object with as flimsy a claim to reality as Popeye or unicorns can have retroactive effects on the real by making huge contributions to the toy and video game industries. From considering the eidos in Husserl’s phenomenology, the strange fact emerged that sensual objects always have real qualities. Simply by dreaming up any random monster, we have not automatically generated a real object, but we have generated real qualities. Why real qualities? Because even though no unicorn or dragon is automatically real just because it is in my mind and affects my moods, it does automatically have real qualities . We can never say exactly what the crucial features are of the fictions in my mind that make up the eidos of any one of them; those features are withdrawn from direct access and exceed any possible analysis or interpretation of them. And that is what makes them real, even though they belong to an unreal thing—a mere sensual object. The question is under what conditions the real qualities of an unreal thing can be split up and rearranged into real objects, so that in this way the fictional objects of our mind can cross the bridge toward the real. As I have said, it happens all the time, and at other times it fails. It is merely the way in which it happens or fails to happen that remains a puzzle. NOTES 1 Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: Essay on the Necessity of Contingency , trans. R. Brassier. (London: Continuum, 2008.) 2 Graham Harman, “ Meillassoux’s Virtual Future ,” continent. , 1.2 (2011), pp. 78-91. 3 Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making . (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.) 4 See also Graham Harman, “I Am Also of the Opinion That Materialism Must Be Destroyed,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space , Vol. 28, No. 5, 2010. Pages 772-790. 5 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time , trans. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962.) Page 97. 6 See Martin Heidegger, “Einblick in das was ist,” in Bremer und Freiburger Vorträge . (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1994.) 7 Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents , trans. A. Lingis. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1988.) 8 G.W. Leibniz, “Monadology.” In Philosophical Essays , trans. R. Ariew & D. Garber. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.) 9 Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object . (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011.) 10 See for example the following post at Bryant’s popular Larval Subjects blog. (shrink)
This paper criticizes two forms of philosophical materialism that adopt opposite strategies but end up in the same place. Both hold that individual entities must be banished from philosophy. The first kind is ground floor materialism, which attempts to dissolve all objects into some deeper underlying basis; here, objects are seen as too shallow to be the truth. The second kind is first floor materialism, which treats objects as naive fictions gullibly posited behind the direct accessibility of appearances or relations; (...) here, objects are portrayed as too deep to be the truth. One major thesis of this paper is that these two forms of materialism are parasitical on one another and need each other's resources to make sense of the world. The second major thesis is that both forms of materialism thereby stand condemned, and that philosophy must be rebuilt from the individual objects that the two forms of materialism disdain. These points are made through a detailed consid- eration of the book Every Thing Must Go by the analytic structural realists James Ladyman and Don Ross, which has gained a surprising following among some speculative realists in continental philosophy. Ladyman and Ross claim to preserve objects by treating them as ``real patterns'', but they do so at the price of destroying their autonomous reality. Furthermore, they are unable to tell us whether the mathematical structures they see as the basis of human knowledge are also the basis of reality itself. In short, their ontology is scientism for scientism's sake (or `Bunsen burner realism') and must be eliminated in favor of a genuine realist metaphysics of objects. (shrink)
This article claims that the familiar distinction between “first-person” and “third-person” perspectives is not a very strong distinction, given that both are perspectives. Quite apart from any perspective we might take on things there are the things themselves, in what the author calls their “zero-person” reality. Appealing to an unorthodox reading of Brentano, Husserl, and Heidegger, the author makes a lengthy critique of David Chalmers for remaining a reductionist in the physical realm even as he opposes reductionism for minds. In (...) closing, the article defends a “polypsychism” instead of “panpsychism,” since many objects are conscious but by no means all of them. (shrink)
This article explores the importance of French thinker, Bruno Latour, for academic philosophy and addresses the question of why, when he has an enthusiastic following in a range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology and the fine arts, he has been largely overlooked by academic philosophers.
This article defends a new sense of “formalism” in philosophy and the arts, against recent materialist fashion. Form has three key opposite terms: matter, function, and content. First, I respond to Jane Bennett’s critique of object-oriented philosophy in favor of a unified matter-energy, showing that Bennett cannot reach the balanced standpoint she claims to obtain. Second, I show that the form/function dualism in architecture gives us two purely relational terms and thus cannot do justice to the topic of form. Third, (...) I argue against Greenberg, Heidegger, and McLuhan that content cannot be trivialized in favor of deeper form. I close with a new conception of mimesis as performance rather than as the fabrication of copies. The form underlying any work’s content is provided by the spectator herself as the only real object that does not withdraw from the aesthetic scene. (shrink)
continent. 2.1 (2012): 6–21. The French philosopher and novelist Tristan Garcia was born in Toulouse in 1981. This makes him rather young to have written such an imaginative work of systematic philosophy as Forme et objet , 1 the latest entry in the MétaphysiqueS series at Presses universitaires de France. But this reference to Garcia’s youthfulness is not a form of condescension: by publishing a complete system of philosophy in the grand style, he has already done what none of us (...) in the older generation of speculative realists has done so far. His book is sophisticated, erudite, rigorous, imaginatively rich, and abundant in worldly wisdom– despite the author’s conclusion that wisdom does not exist. The quality and scope of Forme et objet took few observers by surprise, since Garcia has been treated as an emerging philosopher to watch across half a decade of Parisian oral tradition. But Garcia was not just the subject of rumor, being already well known to the French public as a writer of fiction. His debut novel, La meilleure part des hommes , 2 was awarded the 2008 Prix de Flore 3 and has already appeared in English as Hate: A Romance . 4 His follow-up novel, Mémoires de la jungle , 5 made clever use of a chimpanzee narrator. Nor was Garcia only published as a novelist before last November: his philosophical study L’Image 6 had already appeared when the author was just twenty-six, a year before he was crowned by the muses at the historic Café de Flore. And then in 2011, just months before the appearance of Forme et objet , Garcia published a widely distributed work entitled Nous, animaux et humains , 7 with its focus on Jeremy Bentham’s ideas about animals. Given this prolific and versatile track record, an optimistic scenario might envisage the young Garcia as one of those combined literary/philosophical talents who appear intermittently in France across the centuries: Jean-Paul Sartre is merely the most famous recent case. While more time is needed to see how Garcia will channel his impressive mental energies, Forme et objet displays such breadth of insight that its author has a good chance to emerge as one of the leading philosophers of his generation. If we accept Aristotle’s dictum that the peak mental age is fifty-one, then to read Garcia’s massive book is to gain some idea of what European philosophy might look like in the futuristic-sounding 2030’s. The present article is confined to Forme et objet . At 486 pages, the work is obviously daunting in size. Indeed, it is even longer than it sounds, given that many of its early sections are printed in a smaller typeface to designate them as supplemental commentary to the main flow of the argument. But while the length of the book reportedly led to delays in French publication, and will probably slow the inevitable appearance of an English translation, the length of the book should not deter interested readers– much of it results from Garcia’s teacherly writing style. Whereas Quentin Meillassoux’s prose displays an arctic economy of means, Garcia’s style is reminiscent of the repeated lessons of oral classroom proceedings. Rarely is the reader given fewer than three or four chances to master an idea before the author moves on to the next. In practice, the style feels welcoming rather than long-winded. Otherwise, the structure of Forme et objet is surprisingly simple. There is a useful Introduction of less than twenty pages. Then comes Book I: Formally , running to approximately 135 pages. Here Garcia outlines the most basic features of a thing “no matter what it is,” or n’importe quoi , an everyday phrase that Garcia shapes into a technical term. This part of the book feels at times like a more amiable version of Hegel’s Science of Logic , a parallel emphasized further by the threefold articulation of its theme: 1. Thing; 2. Thing and World; 3. Being and Understanding. This is followed by the much longer Book II: Objectively , totaling more than 300 pages. It contains sixteen essay-like meditations on specific kinds of objects—including time, animals, humans, history, gender, and death. Here each chapter rolls smoothly into the next, making this second part of the book feel more like a different work of Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit . But these are merely analogies. Garcia is no Hegelian, even if the book contains a few dialectical flourishes that seem to reflect his early enthusiasm for the Frankfurt School. Forme et objet ends with a six-page Coda, followed by the usual page of acknowledgments. In what follows, I will briefly summarize each of these four parts of the book before ending with some more general remarks. Before doing so, it will be useful to situate Garcia biographically (as much as I am able) and philosophically. Though Toulouse is his native city, his formative years were spent largely in Algeria, where his family has deep roots. During our sole private conversation, Garcia mentioned that his parents are professors of literature. 8 As a student of philosopher Garcia flourished so early that many of his current ideas date to his teenaged years: “There are sentences in Forme et objet that I wrote when I was seventeen,” he said in response to a question on that cold night on the Canal St.-Martin. I recalled that remark when reading his brilliant account, late in the book, of the central role of adolescence in contemporary culture. While many prodigies blow through their formal academic training without serious obstruction, Garcia’s student memories are rich in tales of isolation and struggle, though equally rich in gratitude for a half-dozen or so exceptional teachers who provided the intellectual space he needed: Meillassoux and Alain Badiou are simply two of the most prominent figures on that list. Though there are many points of agreement between Garcia’s philosophical position and my own, he not only reached his position years before reading my work, 9 he arrived along a rather different path: not through phenomenology, but via the Frankfurt School, which may be one of the reasons for his profound fascination with aesthetics. Garcia’s cultural background is as broad as one could wish: he is no less informed about punk rock and European football leagues than about the spiritualist roots of Bergson’s philosophy. Curious about everything and contemptuous towards nothing, Garcia can be expected to write insightfully on dozens of topics in the years to come. Given that his philosophy is so personally tantalizing in its agreements and disagreements with my own, and given the great internal richness of Forme et objet itself, the present review is no better than a first effort at coming to terms with the challenges posed by this minstrel from the rising generation. This is especially intriguing for older Generation X’ers like me, since confrontation with the younger generation is one of the many themes treated insightfully in Garcia’s book. 1. Introduction Garcia begins in defense of a so-called “flat ontology,” in which all things are equally things. While Roy Bhaskar 10 used this term pejoratively to refer to anti-realist philosophies that flatten everything onto an epistemic plane of human access, Manuel DeLanda 11 (an admirer of Bhaskar) reversed it into the positive principle that all realities are equally realities. Similar notions can be found in the “absistence” of Alexius Meinong, 12 the “irreduction” of Bruno Latour, 13 and my own critique 14 of the undermining/overmining pair. Also noteworthy is Levi Bryant’s use of the term “flat ontology” throughout The Democracy of Objects 15 and his earlier essay “The Ontic Principle.” 16 But for Garcia, flatness is only one face of the cosmos, and one that he ultimately declares to be rather impoverished. Even so, he always remains an advocate of a flat ontology. Insofar as everything is equally something, no matter what it is ( n’importe qui ), everything is equally a thing, equally solitary in its relation with world. This is why his book abounds in those long lists of random, ontologically equivalent entities that Ian Bogost has playfully termed “Latour Litanies.” 17 The first litany in Garcia’s book runs as follows: “We live in this world of things, where a cutting of acacia, a gene, a computer-generated image, a transplantable hand, a musical sample, a trademarked name, or a sexual service are comparable things.” (7) Yet Garcia is frankly dualistic; his flat ontology only lasts until page 159 and the end of Book I (entitled “Formally”), which deals entirely with things that are equally things. Thereafter Garcia turns his attention from things to objects, which are not flat in the least, but engage in hierarchical relations with one another. In agreement with both DeLanda and the speculative realists, Garcia proclaims that his book “proposes to put to the test a thought about things rather than a thought about our thought about things .” (8) Just as ducklings are “imprinted” (9) after hatching and treat the first creature they see as their mother, philosophers are imprinted by the idea with which they begin. Hence, philosophies that begin with human access will never truly find their way back to things. This makes Garcia rather suspicious of twentieth century philosophy, since “the twentieth century—to which in some way this work proposes to bid adieu—has been a period of theorizing modes of access to things rather than things...” (9) Among other possible benefits of the philosophy of things that Garcia proposes, it is fully able to account for thought as a special variant of things, while the reverse is not possible.(10) In Book I of Forme et objet , Garcia’s “things” are so flat, so de-determined, that he is forced to renounce some of the most basic features ascribed to things by most realists. As he tells us in his foreboding third footnote: “We will maintain that the solitude [of things] is less than unity, less than identity, and that it does not imply acceptance (any more than refusal) of the principle of non-contradiction.” (11) In a contemporary world cluttered with too many things, Garcia’s flat and formal plane provides us with some breathing room: “The formal plan of thought enables or re-enables us to cut short all accumulation—whether of knowing, experience, or action—by a simplicity, an impoverished surface...” (13) As Garcia says elsewhere in responding to a Deleuzian critic of the book, his starting point in flat ontology is designed to obstruct the claims of both analytic philosophy and Hegelianism: “Hence, this work seeks to protect each thing—real, imaginary, inconsistent, contradictory—both against Ockham’s Razor and against the Aufhebung or dialectical process.” 18 Yet contrary to the equalizing spirit of many flat ontologies, “we will add to our formal ontology of the equal, an objective ontology of the unequal.” (13) But initially, Garcia joins all flat ontologists in holding that everything is irreducible: “this irreducibility, which we will term the ‘chance’ of each thing... also marks the refusal of a positive thought that reduces things exclusively to natural things, or social things, or historical things, etc.” (15) This irreducible “chance” of a thing emerges as an important technical term in the book, always paired with its inverted brother, the “price to pay” ( prix à payer ). On pages 17-19, we find the only diagrams in the book. What they illustrate is that Garcia wishes to avoid two equally dangerous extremes. The first is the philosophy of substance, featuring the thing-in-itself as a mighty river fed by attributes as if by subordinate tributary streams. This model can be found in many of the classic thinkers of West and East alike. In it, “there is obviously a hierarchization between that which is dragged towards something other than itself, and this other which serves it as an ontological support while supporting its proper being.” (16) For Garcia, the second extreme worth avoiding is the philosophy of events: “One thus conceives trajectories of being, identified as events, facts, powers, intensities, or intentionality. These vectors of being come first, bearing and supporting being, displacing it, but without ever finding a stopping point, a buffer, an objective consistency.” (17) The first model gives us a thing too wrapped up in itself, too compact . This word “compact” (the French and the English are the same) is another technical term for Garcia. But if the “compact” model of things leads us to something more than things, the philosophy of events gives us less than things, by dissolving them into a play of vectors. Garcia’s alternative lies midway between these two extremes: Being enters the thing, being comes out of it. And a thing is nothing other than the difference between the enters and the being that comes out. Thus, the circuit of being is never halted. In the thing, there is never the thing-in-itself. And the thing is never in-itself, but outside of itself. Nonetheless, being is not eventally “pollinated” by vectors: it possesses an objecting halting-point... (19) This single idea is the key to Garcia’s book: the thing is neither a self-contained durable lump nor some sort of evental flux. Instead, the thing is the difference between its various components and its relations with its environment. Or stated differently: “the price to pay for this disposition is a circulation of being that systematically distinguishes two senses of things: that which is in the thing , and that in which the thing is , or that which encompasses it and that which it encompasses,” (19) translating comprendre here as “encompass.” 19 In a beautiful description of a piece of black slate, Garcia sums up the various minerals, qualities, and shapes that compose [ comprend ] it, and calls them “that which is in the thing,” (20) noting that this tells us nothing about “that in which [the slate] is”—namely, all the various situations in which the black slate can be found. Instead, the slate is the difference between these two: the most characteristic principle of Garcia’s philosophy. 2. Formally Book One of Forme et objet , “Formally,” is concerned with the formal equality of all things in a flat world. “Two questions mark the boundaries of reflection: of what is everything composed [ composé ], and: what do all things compose?” (27) Looking downward, we wish to know what everything is made of; looking upward, we want to know the ultimate result of the combination of all things. Here we must turn our attention to the thing n’importe quoi— no matter what it is. (30) Anything with finite qualities is obviously too specific to be relevant to global ontological questions. To an equal degree, something possessing all qualities (think of Whitehead’s God) 20 would not be n’importe quoi either, since it would still be too definite, even if incredibly vast. The same holds for contradictions, since these all differ from each other. The square circle, the non-white black white, and the non-city city are all too distinct to count as the thing no matter what it is. The n’importe quoi must be devoid of all specific qualities, including contradictory ones. In one of the more intriguing points in his book, so reminiscent of Meinong, Garcia proclaims that “the ‘no matter what it is’ is neither a reality nor an abstract construction, nor both of these at once; the ‘no matter what it is’ is simply the plane of equality of that which is real, that which is possible, that which is inexistent, that which is past, that which is impossible, that which is true, that which is false, that which is bad.”(39-40) Since everything has two faces, it would be a grievous mistake to focus on just one of them at the expense of the other, as physicalism or materialism do when reducing the world to minuscule physical underpinnings. For scientistic materialism, “it is either atoms, particles, or fields of force... which are the things.” (47-48) Moreover, “these more-than-things are accompanied by less-than-things: for example, ideas or facts of consciousness are determined by the state of matter and are not autonomous things, but manifestations reduced to secondary effects of material processes...” (48) On this point, Garcia’s position is in complete accord with my own critique of undermining and overmining. 21 Where we disagree is that Garcia is more deeply suspicious of the notion of substance, which I view as salvageable with a few needed changes, while Garcia sees this operation as hopeless: “A substance, in the history of philosophy, is the more-than-thing par excellence.” (51) Another agreement between our positions is visible when Garcia claims (correctly, in my opinion) “that it is vain to distinguish between things which are material and those which are not.” (52) Yet we also find an even more important disagreement, since for Garcia withdrawal cannot be the quality of a thing. Instead, the absence of a thing is simultaneous with it, embodied in all that is not it– the absence of the sculpture of a woman is to be found in the mold that appears at the same time as it, and thus withdrawal must be viewed as an “event” rather than as something pertaining to an object. For Garcia, nothing withdraws beyond access. Since we must distinguish between “that which is something” and “that which something is,” and since the former is identified with “no matter what it is is” and the latter with “ not no matter what it is,” we can say that “everything is thus a milieu, a fragile link between ‘no matter what it is’ and ‘ not no matter what it is.’” (62) And here we find Garcia’s critique of the thing-in-itself: “A thing is never defined en bloc . We can affirm that a thing is this or that, but that does not suffice. It is still necessary to state precisely that which is this thing .” (62) Stated differently, “something is not in itself : for that which is in the thing is not the thing, and that in which the thing is is not the thing.” (62) And here Garcia and I, facing the same evidence, draw opposite conclusions. For me, the fact that nothing can be identified with either its components or its concrete location means that the thing must be something in-itself distinct from both of these. Yet for Garcia, to be in-itself would mean to be identified with just one of these two extreme terms, and hence the thing can only be the difference between them. Garcia is equally suspicious of the classical tendency to view “unity” as a property of the thing, since in his eyes unity is too relational a property to belong to things. (65) While specific things are situated determinately with respect to other things, we are still speaking here about the thing no matter what it is, and this can be viewed only in terms of solitude, which all things share: a human being, a hand, or a chair or all equally things insofar as they are on their own , not insofar as they are one . (64) A thing is alone, and relates only to the one thing that is not another thing: world. In a striking parallel to my own argument for a partial revival of occasionalism, Garcia tells us that “the things communicate only by their solitude: it is because everything is equally on its own in the world that things can be together, enmeshed in one another.” (67) Alone in their solitude, things all relate to world, which serves as a mediator allowing them to become mixed up in one another. As we have seen, one reason that nothing can be in itself is because everything is in something else. For Garcia, “to be in something and to be something are equivalent.” (69) Stated more broadly, “being is thus the difference between the two aspects of each thing: that which is it, and that which it is.” (70) And even more vividly: “a thing is almost like a sack: there is that which one puts in the sack and that which remains outside the sack.” (70) But not quite like a sack, “since a thing is not a thin skin or film. Instead, a thing is comparable to a sack that is immaterial and without thickness: it is nothing other than the difference between that which is this thing and that which thing is, between content and container.” (71) Nothing can be in-itself because everything is two selves at once. For example, we cannot say that our self is defined by our consciousness: “Everything has a self because nothing is in itself. The self is not the quality of that which is related to itself (which is conscious, for example) or which thinks itself related to itself. Nonetheless, for an entity called ‘conscious’ to be related to itself, it is necessary that this very relation should be another thing than the self to which it is related.” (71) Consciousness cannot be the self, precisely because it is other than that of which it is conscious. Nothing is able to grasp itself. The self is “the function by which being and composition [ compréhension ] are mutually excluded...” (72) The self is “the point of shadow of everything that projects some light...” (72) The in-itself faces two opposite dangers: “For something to be in-itself is to be a self. Something which is a self flies out through one of its two sides... Stated differently, being in-itself is simply the possibility of a double failure.” (73) The in-itself can be termed compact : “There remains to us a means of thinking that which does not fully enter into the world, though without exiting from it. This means is what we call the compact.” (76) In a sense, the compact is the opposite of the world. For in the case of the world, everything enters it and it enters nothing; as for the compact, it enters the world (since it is something, after all) while nothing enters it. (77) The compact marks the presence of the impossible in the world. (78) It is not impossible, but possible only on the condition that it fails. (78) The time has come to speak of where a thing is located. “The sole condition of a thing is that of being in another thing than itself, and thus in another thing than something.” (78) A condition is “that which determines something, that which forms something, that in which something is.” (78) As for humans, “the condition of someone is his situation; my social condition is that which socially determines me, my place and my function...” (79) More generally, “to be conditioned is to find oneself reduced to that in which one is.” (79) Everything is conditioned, but nothing is reducible to this condition. To determine the condition of something is to determine in what it is. A thing is located in that which contradicts it, just as a statue exists in its mold, which is precisely that which it is not. Since the thing is finite and definite, its condition or form must be infinite and indefinite. That in which all things are is the world, which Garcia also terms “the whole.” (81) “To try to be in-itself is to attempt to remain outside the world. And indeed, to try to be in-itself is only a path of entry into the world.” (83) For Garcia, “the world is not the pre-existent container of the things it contains, a priori , nor the construction by the mind of a fictional ensemble of all things, a posteriori .” (85) Instead, the world is simultaneous with all things; the two always go together. The world cannot be a determinate world, such as the physical universe or mathematical space, since these are already too specific and limited. “Every determinate world, which is in fact a universe , is a ‘big thing’ [ grosse chose ]: it is a set, however vast, of composite things which itself embodies a thing.” (85) Every determinate world is really just a “big thing.” Stated differently, “it is nothing other than a balanced milieu between the things that compose it and the thing that it composes.” (85) We generally picture the world as a physical univer. (shrink)
Our own era is widely viewed as a golden age of intellectual tolerance when compared with the persecutions of yesteryear. But in fact, this tolerance serves to mask a fundamental indifference of one perspective to another. Each world view is seen as a personal opinion, walled off from others and immune to challenge or alteration by them. This article blames the current situation in part on the triumph of critical philosophy since Kant. In closing, several concrete and even whimsical proposals (...) are made for remedying the situation and restoring a more wild and fruitful form of intellectual combat of a kind that no longer exists. (shrink)
The article begins from Stephen Hawking's well-known claim that philosophy is dead, and considers several other quotations in which philosophy is either belittled or subordinated outright to the natural sciences. This subordination requires a downward reductionism that is paralleled by the upward reductionism of the linguistic turn and social constructionist theories. Rather than undermining or overmining mid-sized individual entities, philosophy must deal with objects on their own terms. This suggests a possible tactical alliance between philosophy and the arts.