Once More with Content

Greetings to everyone. My hit total passed 10,000 a few days ago, and I’d just like to thank everyone who has been reading this blog since I started it up in August last year. I’m still working my way through writers block, but this was going around in my head, so I’ve put it on paper (so to speak).

Graham recently posted a two part response (here and here) to my last post (here) in our ongoing discussion over the viability of his object-oriented philosophical position. There’s a lot there to respond to, and I suspect that he’s misunderstood some of what I said, and sidestepped some objections I don’t think he’s entitled to sidestep. However, its also clear that I’ve misunderstood him in a few places (and that I still don’t get other bits of what he’s doing, alas more reading required…), so I’ll try to be as even handed as I can.

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Against Experience

I haven’t posted anything in a while, as I’ve been in a mad dash with thesis work. Unfortunately, it looks like its not going to let up soon, but I’ll try to make sure I get the odd post in. As a side note for anyone in the UK, watch this space, as I should be announcing a couple interesting events planned at Warwick during 2010 soon. However, I won’t give any specifics until the details are all ironed out.

Getting back to the philosophy, I thought I’d add a little bit to the somewhat turbulent discussion that’s been going on about Graham Harman’s philosophy over the last few days. I have plenty of reservations about his work, insofar as I understand it, but I feel a bit hesitant to launch into anything like a grand critique, given that I haven’t read as much of his work as I’d like to (although Heidegger Explained should be being sent to me soon). Most of this discussion (at least most of the substantive philosophical discussion) has focused on his theory of vicarious causation. I don’t want to talk about this, but rather about something he said (here) in response to Michael Austin’s attempt to clarify his position (here).

The major feature of his philosophy that Harman has been touting recently is what he calls his fourfold, which consists of a distinction between real object and sensual objects on the one hand, and a distinction between real qualities and sensual qualities on the other. The intersection of these distinctions apparently produces 10 categories, describing the ten possible pairings or relationships that can emerge between these four terms. Now, I can’t comment on this categorical schema, because as of yet we’ve only been given some hints about how it works out, but it does sound very intriguing and I’ll be interested to see what comes of it.

However, what concerns me is the way Harman defends the fourfold schema in his response to Austin. In essence, Austin collapsed the two distinctions into one, by presenting Harman’s approach in terms of the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accidents. In response to this Harman emphasized the importance of distinguishing both between the real and the sensual, and distinguishing between objects and their qualities. He justifies the necessity of this in the following way:-

Some people still shout a lot about how useless or meaningless the fourfold structure is, but we’re also making progress on that front. People are paying attention to it. And in most of my lectures and essays in 2009, I’ve made the point that if you don’t accept the fourfold structure, it’s because either:

(a) you reject the difference between human experience and the real beyond it: you’re a correlationist at heart

(b) you reject the distinction between objects and bundles of qualities: you’re an empiricist at heart

My reading of the two separate axes in Heidegger claims that both (a) and (b) are bad positions, and are even worse when combined.

So, Harman tries to back us into a corner, by showing that we have a list of mutually exclusive options: you can adopt correlationism, empiricism, correlationist empiricism, or you can adopt object-oriented philosophy. I quite like this form of argument as it makes our options very clear. However, it also gives us the opportunity to reveal hidden premises upon which the set of options is established. If we can identify and reject such a premise then we can get out of the bind Harman puts us in. Looking at the options presented above, I think we can identify such a hidden premise: that ontology must start with experience.

Its entirely understandable that Harman would assume this. He is, after all, a phenomenologist (albeit a very heterodox phenomenologist). However, it seems to me that its possible to reject this assumption, and thus that it’s possible to reject Harman’s fourfold structure without thereby falling into either empiricism or correlationism. For instance, it seems that we can allow for the possibility of an in-itself that does not collapse back into an in-itself-for-us (contra correlationism) without having to conceive this by contrast with the experiential or sensual. This means understanding the for-us in non-phenomenological terms (perhaps in discursive terms). Moreover, if our understanding of reality is not indexed to some notion of experience, then we need not think of the real properties of entities in terms of any model of experiential qualities, be it an empiricist model or the Husserlian model Harman advocates. It might be that a proper analysis of the discursive structure of predication is a better way of getting a handle on the nature of properties, rather than a phenomenological analysis of quality. At least, this is the path I’m heading down.

I’d like to say more about this, but this was meant to be a brief thought. At some point I really need to articulate why exactly phenomenology is inadequate, and how my alternative methodology (fundamental deontology) is superior. For now, I think it’s enough to say that whether phenomenology (be it in its classical or heterodox form) is the proper method of ontology (or even philosophy as such) is far from a settled matter.