A Quick Response to Graham Harman

I’m glad to know that Graham thinks my criticisms are thoughtful. He put up a few quick responses to my last post yesterday (here and here). I understand he has a busy schedule, and thus can’t always respond in detail (I still would really like to hear his response to this post), but I think it might be helpful to briefly clarify some of my remarks in the last post in response to him.

His first point is that I’m overdetermining his use of ‘scientific’ and ‘metaphysical’, and that this produces some misunderstandings on my part. This is thoroughly possible, and I understand that he put them in scare quotes for a reason. However, his response reinforces one of my problems, namely, that he is confusing specific issues to do with the metaphysics of consciousness with issues about the role of philosophy as such. To explain further, Graham says in his response that the distinction was mainly meant to distinguish between himself and Whitehead on the one hand, who take it that there is some metaphysics of consciousness that escapes scientific description, and those who take consciousness to be fully described by the sciences. However, his major criticism of those in the latter position was that they try “to turn philosophy into something it is not”, by making philosophy a slave to science. This strikes me as too bold a conclusion to draw solely on the basis of their attitude to consciousness. I’ll admit up front that I’ve got my own (very deflationary) opinions on the philosophy of consciousness, but I don’t think the standard for what counts as proper philosophy should be determined by this particular area.

We might instead want to say that this kind of view about consciousness is symptomatic of a deeper problem, and I think this is what Graham actually wants to say. This is why, in my last post, I tried to separate out issues to do with the irreducibility of consciousness to scientific description from what I took to be the broader issue, namely, irreducibility to scientific description as such. The aim of the post was then to highlight two different ways in which there could be something about objects/entities that is irreducible to science’s description of them (which I called material and formal excess). If we don’t pay attention to the difference between these two forms of irreducibility it becomes very easy to simply say that one position holds that scientific description exhausts entities, leaving no room for philosophy, whereas the other opens up a space for a philosophical description of entities that is independent of the sciences. From this, the idea that the former position makes philosophy a slave to the sciences follows easily.

Now, Graham might not intend to make this gesture, but some of his brief remarks can come across this way. The major point I want to make is that just as disagreeing with Graham over the irreducibility of consciousness is at best symptomatic of some deeper philosophical problem that needs to be elaborated, so is disagreeing with Graham about the irreducibility of objects to their scientific description, if what is understood by this is the inaccessibility of their real properties (as opposed to their sensuous properties). This is because, even on Graham’s account, philosophy’s role is not to describe those real properties that science can’t describe (as they’re inaccessible tout court), but to describe the structure of objects qua objects, and thus to describe the inaccessibility itself, rather than what is inaccessible. This means that there can be philosophical positions which maintain that philosophy has the same basic domain as Graham does, namely, the description of the structure of entities qua entities, but simply claim that this structure is different, including denying that there is the kind of inaccessibility of real properties that Graham posits. Such positions do maintain a role for philosophy as distinct from science, the question is simply to what extent they think that their description of the structure of entities qua entities must be sensitive to science’s description of them. This is where the real disagreement with Graham lies, and his claims to inaccessibility might have some role to play here, but he still needs to give a better account of the precise way in which these positions understand this sensitivity to science (and there are potentially many) and why it is problematic.

I suspect that Graham might want to say that the real issue is that many people who occupy this kind of position haven’t actually thematised their relation to science, meaning that even if they explicitly aim to do metaphysics it is done in a sloppy way which deploys scientific theory without good reason. I think this is probably true in some cases (though not in my own, see here and here). Such is the problem of running headlong into metaphysics/ontology without first dealing with methodological considerations. However, it is certainly not clear that this is the way everyone goes about it, and in these cases there needs to be specific criticism of particular conceptions of the relation between science and metaphysics, rather than general allusions to disciplinary slavery. Either this or Graham needs a better general argument which affects everyone that posits some kind of privileged link between science and metaphysics (as opposed to say science and literature).

I’ll finish by addressing Graham’s response to the comments I did make about his use of consciousness. I claimed that Graham takes consciousness as a paradigm case of irreducibility, and in some way uses it to motivate an account of the irreducibility of everything else. Graham objected to this quite strongly. I think I might not have been as clear as I could have been, but I still think I was broadly right. I’ll try and restate the claim more clearly. Both positions on the nature of consciousness accept that they can’t give consciousness some form of privileged metaphysical status. It is thus the case that, in some sense, both positions aim to describe everything (although they have different definitions of ‘everything’) in the same metaphysical terms. The point is that they pursue different directions of explanation. The more naturalistic approach tries to develop a metaphysical framework based on paradigm cases of entities from the natural sciences (e.g., that entities are spatio-temporal, engage in causal interactions, and are composed and capable of composing other entities through causal interactions), and then extends this to ‘conscious’ human beings. Graham’s approach starts with consciousness, deriving the claim that objects are in some way fundamentally inaccessible to consciousness (among others), and then extends this to other objects, so that objects are inaccessible to eachother. There is nothing in principle wrong with this different strategy, insofar we do have to start somewhere, I just happen to think that there are a number of reasons why this is the wrong place to start (see here and here).

So, when Graham claims that I’m implying some illicit anthropomorphism on his behalf, he’s half right and half wrong. I do think he’s a panpsychist. Anyone who universalises certain features traditionally restricted to human thought/consciousness to all other entities is a panpsychist in some sense. The question is always what specifically is being universalised. No panpsychist worth his salt universalises every feature of human thought (no one seems to think that paperclips can reason), and mostly pick something very minimal (e.g., sensation, will, information processing). The claim is never “My chair thinks/experiences in the same sense that I do”, but rather, there is some minimal sense of thought/consciousness that is common to both me and the chair. What this sense is just happens to differ between Leibniz, Nietzsche, Whitehead, Deleuze and Graham. I’ve got no general problem with panpsychism, and insofar as I’m still nominally Deleuzian, there’s a good sense in which I endorse it (see here). My disagreement with Graham, and where I do think he’s illicitly anthropomorphising objects, is the particular feature he universalises, namely, the structure of intentionality. Of course, it’s a very stripped down form of intentionality, but insofar it’s still a matter of intentional directedness, I think it’s overblown. The reasons for this will probably have to wait for another time though.


2 Responses to “A Quick Response to Graham Harman”

  1. […] at the real metaphysical structure of objects. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (here and here), Graham thinks that the real properties of each object are unknowable (except through allusion), […]

  2. […] will, intentionality, sensation, etc.), but simply a matter of ascribing any of them (see here). Leibniz, Nietzsche, Whitehead, Deleuze and Graham are all panpsychists, but in quite different […]

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