Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology

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.

14 Replies to “Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology”

  1. …but we have to ask ourselves, “is Husserl the best way to approach an understanding of human perception?” And is “knowing” the best metaphor for describing how other objects encounter each other?

    I found that Harman’s work is full of metaphysical assumptions about the nature of experience and causality that are granted even before he makes his most imporatnt claims about objetcs. This doesn’t make him wrong per se, although I think is might be in many cases, but it should at least make us sensitive to the intellectual background from which his logic/claims are being asserted.

    Husserl’s phenomenology is not undisputed.

    Cheers.

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for stopping by. I don’t know if Husserl is THE best way to approach human perception, but he is certainly part of a long lineage of thinkers that have given me what little understanding I have of the complexities of mind’s relation to things. Personally, I’ve found Merleau-Ponty to be a more embodied and creative (even poetic) philosopher, whose approach is closer to the Whiteheadian tradition that increasingly serves as my intellectual center of gravity.

      “Knowing” is probably not the best way to describe how objects in general relate, since it implies that complete access to the interiority of others is possible. Like Levinas, I’d want to put the infinite mystery and ethical call of the other before the finite power of cognition. This is not to say that a radically participatory epistemology might not be possible, where objects (and I’d prefer to say subject-objects, or perhaps organisms, so as to make clear my panexperientialist ontology) interpenetrate with one another, mutually affecting and transforming one another in the act of coming to know.

      I’ve not read Harman’s earlier book Tool-Being, and I’m not even half way through Guerilla Metaphysics, so I can’t respond to your criticisms of him yet. Perhaps I will come to agree with you.

  2. fair enough Matthew. I too favor Merleau-Ponty in all things phenomenological, and think he took the best from both Husserl and Heidegger and integrated via his important insights into embodiment.

    I’ll will be curious to read what you think about Harman’s notion of ‘vicarious causation’ a little further along in the book, which suggests the notion that NO objects actually touch each other. Harman is famous for positing that all of reality is fundamentally non-relational, and based entirely on vacuum-sealed objects. I don’t buy it. But, of course, you can decide for yourself.

    Cheers-

  3. Interesting stuff here Matt and Michael. I feel compelled to point out, however, that for those who know their Husserl, there’s really not a lot that’s new in Merleau-Ponty’s thought prior to his final, unpublished work (and the transitional pieces) The Visible and the Invisible. MP takes his claims over almost entirely from Husserlian texts like Ideas II and III, Experience and Judgment, the lectures on time, Analyses Concerning Active and Passive Syntheses, etc (he studied the unpublished Husserl archives for years). I share your love of MP, and acknowledge that Husserl is a pain to read, but he’s also been treated unjustly by his detractors and defenders alike. Once you start getting into the lectures he’s an embarrassment of riches.

  4. Hey Levi, if M-P is just paraphrasing Husserl I missed it, because from what I can tell (and as you imply) his later work is quite a departure from Husserl’s notion of a transcendental ego. I don’t recall Husserl talking about embodiment or chiasmic experiences. But I can’t be certain.

  5. Yep Michael,

    It’s all over the place in Husserl’s later work. He even talks about the production of the transcendental ego out of passive syntheses. This is almost certainly where Deleuze got his account of passive synthesis and habitus in Difference and Repetition.

    1. you might also, if you haven’t already, want to check out simon critchely’s husserlian mis-reading of heidegger on B&T

  6. My question for you is this. You have spent much time learning particular works of the philosophers. Have you ever talked to one who has had to experiance their works spend years trying to fidgure out who the heck has been behind them so to speak, Begining from scrath well ok not scratch I have spiritual backing without which I would of thought I lost me mind . I see it as this your looking for truths I am looking for truths we need each other, I have experianced different objects I will describe, the first is related to a event in my past. It was a picture of a swiss soldier and it was inscribed “Col Jean Rodolphe Christ au service de ?????? 1815-1816″

    The 2nd was 4 similar object that i wont go into complete description now but they led me to a connection with a different object that well I at first thought it was just a simple triange with the numbers 177171, but I did find that it was actualy the hebrew spelling for YHWH, the tetragammaton. anyone reply would be appreciated.

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