I’ve just finished part one of Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Harman’s treatise on the relationship between the phenomenology of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Lingis and his object-oriented approach to philosophy. He is motivated by a desire to direct our attention to the things themselves, the independently existing objects of the world. It is a desire similar in spirit to Husserl’s famous directive: back to the things themselves!, but more radical in that his longing is less for descriptions of our attention than it is for adequate portrayals of the things themselves that aren’t stuck on issues of human access. Husserl’s work elaborates upon the intentional structure of consciousness, making clear that to be conscious is to be conscious of something. In other words, conscious subjectivity is constituted by its acts of objectification. Consciousness doesn’t access the world by interpreting a smear of raw sensory data, but always already perceives meaningful things: couches, water color paintings, and green coffee mugs.
Harman points out that the intentional unity of subject and object constituting consciousness’ relation to the world does not create an unbroken whole or “global purée,” but rather a highly differentiated and layered matrix of relations between particular objects. When I direct attention to a coffee mug, I can still recognize a difference between myself as perceiver and the mug as a thing perceived. I can even recognize a difference within myself between the I that I am and the I that intends the mug.
As Harman puts it:
“Although in one respect the intentional act is a seamless fabric without parts, in another respect it is riddled with numerous interior objects that hypnotize me, that absorb my attention as I enjoy their sensuous facades and aim my attention at the illusive objects lurking beneath them. In short, the unified intentional experience is already a descent into its own particles.”
Harman doesn’t want to reject the important discoveries and re-orientations of the phenomenological tradition, he wants to extend them so that it becomes possible to imagine objects relating to one another, communicating with one another, independent of human consciousness. Intentionality, then, is not just a feature of human consciousness, but of the relationship between things themselves: the table intends the mug, the mug intends the coffee, just as I intend each of them.
There is so much more to be unpacked, and I’m excited by the prospect of bringing Harman into conversation with the likes of James Hillman, and perhaps even Rudolf Steiner. The similarities with the psychology of the former are sketched in my last post (which Harman noticed and found plausible). And Steiner’s richly textured ontology includes an etheric dimension that mediates between the unreachable substance of physical things (the mineral realm) and the pure qualities of presentational immediacy (the astral realm), which sounds similar to Harman’s call for an ontologization of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh of the world, that mysterious carnal matrix that gives rise to both perceiver and perceived.
Here is an excerpt from Guerilla Metaphysics that might help make this connection to Steiner’s ontology more plausible (p. 24):
“We do not really dwell amidst objects, because they forever surpass our explorations of them, remaining inaccessible to us. But neither do we live among brute sensory givens, since there is no such thing as sensuous matter without objective form [b/c the essence of consciousness is intentionality]: a cacophony of random sound is already interpreted as a specific unit against its background, as are the minute colored points on computer screens. In short, we live in a strange medium located somewhere between substances and qualities, unable to touch either of them.”
It sounds to me like the strange medium he is talking about, which is neither physical nor ideational/presentational, is precisely what Steiner means by the etheric body. It isn’t the feelings and sensations of the private soul, nor is it the motions of minerals in the physical body. It is the sense-making, or imaginal processes of the etheric matrix, which is the place Steiner says thinking must come to dwell before any participatory epistemology is to be possible (he says the thinking of modernity and positivism is trapped in the brain, literally determined by the shape of the matter in the skull). I think Harman might be trying to enact this sort of space for thinking. Like Steiner, he seems to look at and feel into a layered and stratified world of real beings whose inner lives are not immediately accessible to consciousness.
It’s all still a jumbled mess of vaguely related ideas in my head at this point, but I’ll be trying to clarify my thoughts in more posts soon to come.