Undermining and Overmining the ‘Appearances’

Graham Harman:

“Object-oriented philosophy” is a term I coined in the late 1990’s, borrowed from computer science without being inspired by it. There are perhaps three central features of this type of philosophy.

First, it initially implies a flat ontology in which even hallucinations and fictions count as objects, and in which composite objects such as machines and societies are objects no less than pillars of granite or tiny little quarks. In this respect object-oriented philosophy is an anti-reductionism. And here it is not altogether new, since a number of late nineteenth-century thinkers of the Austrian school were already moving in this direction, Husserl among them.

Second, it entails that objects are something over and above the properties they carry. An object is not just a nickname for a bundle of qualities, and hence object-oriented philosophy is also an anti-empiricism: one that sides with phenomenology in taking the object to be prior to its concrete manifestations in various instants.

Third, there is the most central claim of object-oriented philosophy: that the human-object relation is merely a special case of object-object relations more generally. The tree-in-itself is withheld from us not because we humans are specially tragic finite beings, but simply because we are objects at all. The wind has no more and no less direct access to the tree than I do. The phrase “relations are external to their terms” is valid not just for human empirical observers, but for brute causal interactions as well.

The reason many people become angry about object-oriented philosophy is that they sense its vigorous anti-reductionism, but they want philosophy to be a kind of debunking reductionism in one or both of two possible ways. Either we must debunk downward by showing that science gives the best description of what is real, with the rest counting as nothing more than epidermal illusion; or, we must debunk upward by showing that everything is constructed by language, society, perception, or events, so that only naïve, life-hating oppressors would insist on a “reality” hiding beneath the play of surfaces. I call the first group “underminers” and the second group “overminers.”

The first group dislikes me because I think Popeye and sunflower seeds can’t be broken down to scientifically privileged entities. The second group dislikes me because I insist on reality and essences, which sounds to them like an old-fashioned doctrine of patriarchal imperialism— though in fact it’s the exact opposite, since I don’t think the essences can ever be directly known, and hence they can never be used as political measuring-sticks.

4 responses

  1. I find it interesting that he describes others seeing science as giving “the best description of what is real”. Most would say it gives the best explanation, though I often puzzle over the distinction between description and explanation, so it may just be my pointing to something interesting that isn’t there.

    Really great distinction between overminers and underminers. I can imagine those in my graduate program claiming that I have no right to say something exists if I can’t posit the conditions for its existence (its essence essentially). I wonder what Harman would say in this case.

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