Philosophy . Politics, Philosophy and Religion

An Interview with Graham Harman

Quentin Meillassoux banner

To celebrate the new edition of Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, we’re thrilled to bring you this exclusive author Q&A with Graham Harman. Questions by Jon Cogburn.

Jon Cogburn: You note in the front matter of your book Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making that you chose the title in part because Meillassoux’s philosophical project is ongoing. Can you describe what has occasioned a second edition of the book as well as the revisions?

Graham Harman: Unlike many of the philosophers I’ve written about, Meillassoux is still alive and hard at work. This makes his philosophy a moving target, and that’s presumably why Edinburgh University Press asked me at an early stage whether I’d eventually be interested in producing a Second Edition once enough new material had emerged, but not so much new material that my book would become unaffordably long. And so, here we are. Since the publication of the First Edition in 2011, we have seen three important developments from Meillassoux: his book on Mallarmé, his critique of me and Iain Hamilton Grant in the 2012 Berlin Lecture (‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition’) and also a pair of fascinating articles in which Meillassoux touches on his intellectual relation to Alain Badiou.

Jon Cogburn: How has Meillassoux’s new material affected your assessment of him and your own speculative project?

Graham Harman: I’m of two, even three minds about this. In the positive sense, his book on Mallarmé is a tour de force. Who expected to be convinced that a secret numerical code lies at the heart of Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dès? But count me among the convinced. Even the second part of the book, where Meillassoux qualifies his initial thesis, is quite compelling.

In the negative sense, I find the discussion of ‘subjectalism’ in the 2012 Berlin Lecture unconvincing and sometimes a bit disturbing.

Above all, he claims that idealism and vitalism are really the same, since both positions ‘absolutize the subject’. It follows that Berkeley (a full-blown metaphysical idealist) gets packaged together with Whitehead (a full-blown metaphysical realist). But this is merely an ambiguity. Berkeley ‘absolutizes the subject’ by saying esse est percipi, and hence nothing exists except as an image in some mind, whether it be your mind, my mind, or God’s. Yet if we concede that Whitehead ‘absolutizes the subject’, it can only mean something very different: namely, that everything that exists is in some sense a subject. This is a far cry from esse est percipi. Meillassoux’s point in making this claim is to rescue ‘materialism’ by saying that there must be a difference between two distinct kinds of entity: the human subject and dead matter. But this is just an instance of what we can call the Taxonomical Fallacy: the assumption that any ontological distinction must be embodied in different species of entities.

Meillassoux is certainly not alone in opting for this taxonomical path. Heidegger does it in Being and Time, for instance, by implying that the zuhanden can be found in cases such as tools, the vorhanden in cases such as theoretically accessible or spatially positioned entities, with Dasein as a separate third case found only in humans. But as I have argued since my first book Tool-Being, the zuhanden and the vorhanden are actually two faces of every entity (including human beings) rather than two taxonomically distinct kinds of entities. An analogous point holds for Meillassoux’s 2012 Berlin Lecture. By insisting that there be humans on the one hand and dead matter on the other, he essentially reprises the old Cartesian ontology. Among other problems with this ontology, it is very difficult to explain why this miraculous Cartesian subject should arise from what came before. For Meillassoux it is through an eruption ex nihilo, which just restates the problem of the radical gap between thought and world rather than solving it. Others are even more extravagant in their speculations, such as Žižek and his ‘ontological catastrophe’ leading to the creation of a mad human subject with a unique ability to tear holes in the fabric of the universe.

Meillassoux does tackle the problems connected with the irruption ex nihilo of consciousness, in my view without success. But ultimately this is not so important, since every genuine philosophy has to embrace certain problematic consequences in order to make progress on other fronts. I’m sure Meillassoux will come up with stimulating results in his future work regardless. There is little doubt that he will continue to write fascinating things in the decades to come. We’ll simply be headed in opposite directions more clearly than was the case before, though apparently he has moderated his critique significantly in the version of his Berlin Lecture to be published shortly by Bloomsbury.

Another interesting thing to watch will be how Meillassoux continues to articulate his differences from Badiou. We now have two articles by Meillassoux on Badiou in English. He does as good a job as anyone of explaining the difference between Badiou’s two major books, Being and Event and Logics of Worlds. Like most Badiou fans, Meillassoux greatly prefers the standpoint of Being and Event. But I’m a contrarian here: it seems to me that Being and Event is a very unsatisfying form of idealism that would have made Jean-Paul Sartre proud. Logics of Worlds seems like the more important book to me, especially in its Kierkegaardian model of truth as commitment. Meillassoux treats Being and Event as the more humane and less violent of the two books, but while that may be true on the level of political content, in terms of tone the second book is witty and cultured where the first is somewhat beleaguered and abrasive. I suspect that Badiou has mellowed with success.

Jon Cogburn: You characterize Correlationism as having two planks: (1) The human-world relation stands at the center of philosophy, since we cannot think something without thinking it, and (2) All knowledge is finite, unable to grasp reality in its own right. Meillassoux accepts (1) but rejects (2) and you reject (1) and accept (2). Do you think it’s profitable to characterize other thinkers connected to the Speculative Realism movement (e.g. Ray Brassier, Levi Bryant, Tristan Garcia, Iain Hamilton-Grant, Adrian Johnston, Steven Shaviro, Slavoj Žižek) in terms of these two planks? If so, what divisions do you see?

Graham Harman: Sure. Even beyond Speculative Realist circles this is a crucial division. The big fight in continental philosophy right now is between rationalists and anti-rationalists (not ‘irrationalists’). Of the names you mentioned, Brassier, Johnston, and Žižek all fall into the former category. They don’t like Kantian finitude, which some of them associate with ‘postmodern sophistry’— forgetting that finitude was key for Heidegger, who was not a sophist despite being several other bad things.

By contrast, the anti-rationalists tend to appreciate Whitehead and Latour as crucial figures, and tend not to make sweeping claims about what truth is. Of the names you mentioned, Shaviro definitely belongs here, and even Garcia who reaches his position via other avenues than Whitehead and Latour. It’s too early to speculate about Grant, since he may be shifting in more of a naturalist direction different from his initial Schellingian tendencies. As for Bryant, his position has been evolving in ways I don’t fully understand, and I’d rather wait to see what his next book sounds like.

Jon Cogburn: In the Introduction to the most recent edition of Speculations, the editors make a really interesting case for the claim that analytic and continental philosophy are profoundly Kantian and Speculative Realism is German Idealism redux. In light of this, can you expand on your claim (p. 9) about Meillassoux avoiding the absolutisation of thought found in German Idealism? I can think of two things this might mean, his Kantian refusal to talk about the totality of the possible (a key premise in his argument for contingency) and his recent criticism of views such as yours as ‘subjectalist’. I should also note that ‘the inside job of radicalizing the correlational circle from within’ (p. 10) seems to describe both Meillassoux and the Hegel of the Phenomenology. Does any of this tie into one of your major criticisms of Meillassoux, that Strong Correlationism (which asserts that reality in itself might exist, but that claims about, presumably including those asserting the possibility of it existing, are unthinkable) is an unstable way station between Weak Correlationism and Idealism?

Let’s speak first about the Speculations Introduction by Ridvan Askin, Andreas Hägler, and Philip Schweighauser. It’s a rich piece of writing, filled with promising ideas about the history of aesthetics and of philosophy more generally. As you say, the final punch of their Introduction is the claim that Speculative Realist aesthetics is ‘either German Idealism redux or nothing’. A provocative claim! But somehow I wasn’t able to follow their argument for it, which could easily be my own fault. The authors seem to understand my argument for aesthetics as first philosophy, but in that case, how can they link my argument with German Idealism? I’m a staunch defender of the thing-in-itself, unlike any figure of German Idealism. I also treat aesthetics as a split between objects and their qualities, and I don’t recall anyone else in German philosophy of any period doing that, though admittedly there is some link between my position on art and Romanticism. (Steven Shaviro is wrong to claim that I’m trapped in the aesthetics of the sublime, however. The sublime has a closer connection with ontologies which hold that the inaccessible world is one, whereas for me the world itself is already carved up into countless different beings.)

As for Meillassoux’s avoidance of German Idealism’s absolutisation of thought, I don’t think he actually succeeds in avoiding it. You can see from the interview in my book that he reacted rather negatively to my claim that he is close to the German Idealists, but I don’t think he escapes their influence any more than Lacan, Badiou, or Žižek do. Keep in mind that Meillassoux respects the ‘correlationist circle’ argument that we cannot think the unthought without turning it into a thought. That’s why he rejects the ‘weak correlationism’ of Kant, who was attacked by successors who appealed to the correlationist circle, which would be a form of ‘strong correlationism’. Whereas Kant said that the thing-in-itself can be thought but not known, the strong correlationists (and Meillassoux with them) called this nonsense, and said that the thing-itself cannot be thought any more than it can be known.

In that case, what makes strong correlationism different from flat-out idealism? Here Meillassoux pulls a clever trick that I find illegitimate. He says that just because we cannot think the unthought does not mean that the unthought cannot exist. But this contradicts the very principle he has already used to critique weak correlationism! When Kant or other weak correlationists (like me) defend the unknowable thing-in-itself, Meillassoux joins the German Idealists in calling this a meaningless notion— ‘outside thought’ becomes just a slang phrase for ‘present to thought’, since the outside is completely unthinkable. But then in step two, Meillassoux wants to prevent himself from sliding into idealism by saying ‘nonetheless, there might be an outside anyway’. But since step one already relied on the meaninglessness of even referring to an outside, he has no right to appeal now to an outside in order to protect himself from charges of idealism.

Essentially, Meillassoux will tell you that whereas German Idealism allowed for no thing-in-itself, his own philosophy does. But as I show in the book, Meillassoux’s in-itself is only a temporal in-itself. It can outlast the human species, and that is all that is ‘in itself’ about it. If all humans are exterminated, all the things in the universe will continue to exist with the same primary qualities we can discover in them right now by mathematical means, losing only their secondary qualities, which are dependent on us. My response is that this relinquishes what was most important about Kant’s in-itself: its incommensurability in principle with any sort of accessibility. And yes, this is why I find Meillassoux’s ‘Strong Correlationist’ position (which he tries to radicalize into his own Speculative Materialist position) impossibly unstable.

Jon Cogburn: While I applaud your criticism of the use Meillassoux makes of his many dualisms, I worry that your brief comments about epistemism recapitulates the positivist/phenomenologist division of labor between science and philosophy, with science giving us genuine knowledge and philosophy something else. Do you think that we have avenues to knowledge distinct from the scientific method? What about moral and aesthetic knowledge? If science is a founded mode in the Heideggerian sense, and science delivers knowledge, isn’t it then the case in your view that knowledge presupposes the epistemic capacities covered by allure and your theory of metaphor? If something like that is the case, then could allure and (Harmanian) metaphor play a role with respect to moral and aesthetic knowledge? Honestly, I ask these in part because I’ve long been baffled by what I see as scientism in some people involved with the Speculative Realist movement, including some who are charitable readers of you (I won’t name names here).

Graham Harman: As I see it, the really troublesome division of labour has been the ‘taxonomic’ one, in which the sciences are given a monopoly on discussing inanimate entities, and the humanities are initially given a monopoly on human affairs. I say ‘initially’ because of the rise of people like Thomas Metzinger who pay lip service to ‘interdisciplinarity’, though what they really mean is that the sciences will henceforth monopolize human affairs no less than nature, with philosophers left only to sit on ethics panels. Philosophy’s mission is much wider than this.

What you seem to be worried about in my position is the view that science and philosophy do not provide the same thing. Science is supposed to provide knowledge, of course, replacing vague proper names with lists of properties truly possessed by things. One fails as a scientist if one cannot not replace a name such as ‘Pluto’ with increasingly accurate properties of what we now call the dwarf planet Pluto. But this has never been the case in the arts. We do not understand a painting by Picasso by discovering an ever-lengthening list of true facts about it. The goal of art is not to create paraphraseable imagery, but to create something to which no paraphrase ever does justice. The same goes for history. Here, factual research in the archives is only one part of the work. To understand Napoleon or Suleiman the Magnificent requires going beyond the verifiable facts and understanding an object that lies somewhat beyond knowledge. The same holds for philosophy. Socrates gives us no knowledge about virtue, friendship, or justice. Philosophy is not a proto-science from which the sciences are spin-offs. The reverse is actually the case: the pre-Socratics are certainly scientists, but in my view not quite philosophers. They speculate about the ultimate physical root to which everything can be reduced— this is a scientific aspiration, and not a philosophical one, as shown by Socrates’ jail cell remarks distancing himself from Empedocles’ naturalism.

Jon Cogburn: I love how you motivate anti-Correlationism with respect to here and now objects that we are currently perceiving. Analytic philosophers who defend the claim that we perceive ‘non-conceptual content’ can be presented as endorsing your idea that there is a radical difference (phenomenologically accessible) between an object and a concept constructed simulacrum of an object. But (perhaps because of how good/horrible analytic philosophers are at bracketing related issues while working out their projects) there is very little or no appreciation in analytic philosophy of the broader challenges presented by this anti-conceptualism. You and Tristan Garcia are the only contemporary philosophers that I know of who really face this head-on and use it as an actual metaphysical explanandum. How must we describe reality such that it constitutively eludes our attempts to describe it? These are paradoxical waters, but if they are the oceans from whence we emerge, we lose everything by denying them. You’ve also picked up the epistemic problem with your doctrine of allusion and writings on metaphor. Can you expand on this a little bit, maybe again with respect to other authors publishing in and around Speculative Realism? And with respect to people like Mark Okrent who get from Heidegger a picture of how we might have non-conceptual knowledge grounded in our non-linguistic sensitivity to the counterfactual aspects of reality?

Graham Harman: For me it’s not just a question of ‘non-conceptual’ aspects of things, since it is too easy to lay claim to such aspects by arguing that praxis lies at the basis of theory, or even (with Hubert Dreyfus) that cultural/sociological background conditions lie at the basis. In fact, the difference between human praxis and human theory is ultimately not that big. My primary interest is not non-conceptual content, but non-relational content. And as you know, I extend this question down to the realm of causal relations rather than leaving it as a narrowly human problem.

I’m sometimes surprised by the accusation that object-oriented philosophy leaves us in a state of silence. This is the old Wittgensteinian cliché about how what we cannot speak about must be passed over in silence. Hardly! Plato took care of this well in advance with his critique of Meno’s Paradox, which tells us that you can’t look for what you already have (since you already have it) and can’t look for what you don’t have (because you won’t recognize it when you find it). It’s an argument drawn by Meno from the Sophists, and one to which Socrates responds simply by noting that we both have and do not have that for which we are looking. This is what philosophia means, after all.

There are many ways of speaking of things that are not direct ways. Socratic inquiry is one of them. Metaphorical statement is another— and we should not view metaphor as an overly precious or delicate ‘fringe’ way of thinking, since Aristotle tells us that a gift for metaphor is the greatest gift. In everyday language, think of all the forms of speech that are far more powerful when left indirect, rather than restated in direct prose terms: threats, jokes, erotic innuendo.

Once we give up the idea that philosophy is a kind of knowledge meant to limp along after the sciences and explain their success, we free up philosophy to be what it really is: love of wisdom.

Jon Cogburn: An oft-repeated shibboleth is that Speculative Realism somehow undermines politics and ethics. Sometimes this is the risible, reductive, and monotonous application of the hermeneutics of suspicion to Speculative Realism (‘You know who else talks about objects? Capitalists!’), and sometimes it’s the more interesting claim that Speculative Realism is just incomplete, lacking the resources to justify political commitment. Unfortunately, I think the scientistic-minded people connected with Speculative Realism have probably unintentionally encouraged this by presupposing strict fact-value dichotomies in their work, as if realism requires such a strict boundary. But this seems to me to just accept the positivist presupposition that one can’t be a realist about values or norms. I know you have recently published a book on Latour’s politics and would love to hear your take on all of this. I should first note that the Schellengian/subjectualist inference provides a way out of this, and that your marvelous early paper on Alphonso Lingis (in Towards Speculative Realism), which finds imperatives in non-human reality, is perhaps a model of how this should go. Some might regard that as a bug, but I hope that it’s a feature. Is it? And if so how have your thoughts on the issue developed since the Lingis essay?

Graham Harman: These complaints don’t interest me as much as some others do. The fact is, relatively little interesting political discussion is underway in continental philosophy right now. It is ordained in advance that only some recognizably Left position is permitted, and it is further assumed that the urgencies of our time (destruction of the planet, income inequality) automatically justify a recognizable Left position. Beyond this, quite a number of ‘political’ critiques of Speculative Realism have simply been forms of moralistic posturing. And as you note, other critiques have been grounded in nothing more than shallow intellectual puns: ‘International bankers got us into the recent financial crisis by speculating, and Speculative Realists also speculate.’ This is really no better than saying: ‘Orange you glad you drank juice for breakfast?’

With my recent book on Latour’s politics (Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political), I was trying to gain a foothold in political discussion based in reality rather than group-think posturing. Usually we all think of politics in Left/Right terms. Indeed, we often size people up on this spectrum whenever we meet them, and classify them accordingly as closer to or further from ourselves. But ultimately, the Left/Right distinction is built on a disagreement about two views of the so-called State of Nature. For those on the Left, humans were born free but are everywhere in chains. If there is an inequality somewhere then someone, some social class, some flaw in the system must be to blame, since equality is our natural state. For those on the Right, the state of nature is so abysmally horrible that order of any sort is preferable to the anarchy that would otherwise result.

What I found early on was that this Left/Right distinction is crossed by an even more important dualism in modern political theory between Truth Politics and Power Politics. The former group consists of those who hold that the political truth is already known and is simply blocked from coming into being by various unfortunate factors that must be combatted. Such positions can be found on the Right no less than the Left. The same holds for Power Politics, which in its pure form says that there is only victory and defeat, not right and wrong, not political truth. This position also comes in both Left and Right forms.

Now, philosophy is not activism, even if some people are both philosophers and activists. Some will say that there are urgent issues that must be confronted now. But philosophy has nothing to do with the urgent. Philosophy works on a much slower scale of time. Philosophers are conceptual innovators, not moralizing posturers or the premature flatterers of such people.

What Truth Politics and Power Politics have in common is a claim to knowledge. One side already ‘knows’ what the political truth is, while the other side ‘knows’ that there is only victory and defeat but no truth. Philosophy is philosophia, not sophia. It is a love of wisdom, and therefore it does not know the truth about politics any more than it knows the truth about anything else.

Jon Cogburn: General academic reception- In the new front matter you note that Meillassoux now teaches at the University of Paris, which represents a pretty big institutional change from the days when Speculative Realism existed in a few conferences here and there and me and a bunch of fans and critics experimenting with doing philosophy in the blogosphere. In these last questions I would love to get your perspective on this change and where things are going. Let me share two perceptions though. First, it seems to me that Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology are in a position very similar to that of Deconstructionism in the early and mid 1980s. Lots of notice and fruitful discussion outside of philosophy departments, but (with a few exceptions) within philosophy departments a reception that veers from benign neglect to a bizarre hostility. Thoughts? What is it, for example, that makes these movements so influential in the contemporary art world yet simultaneously not represented well in philosophy Ph.D. programs?

Graham Harman: This seems like such a typical pattern for continental philosophers that it ought to be recognizable by now. You mentioned the case of Derrida. There’s also Deleuze, who was lionized by architects before he was regarded as a major figure even in continental philosophy departments. I entered graduate school in 1990 and clearly remember how Deleuze was viewed at the time: as an entertaining and irreverent smartass, roughly on the same level as Baudrillard, while Derrida and Foucault were considered the two ‘serious’ contemporary continental thinkers.

That changed in the mid-1990s for a variety of reasons, but the architects were already on the case. And of course there’s the case of Žižek, who for a long time was read only by graduate students, and mostly outside departments of philosophy. As Žižek himself said somewhere about the situation in American philosophy: ‘If you study a rat’s vertebra, that’s philosophy. If you read Hegel, that’s comp. lit.’

Hence the anti-object-oriented wing of continental philosophy speaks a strange tongue when they gloat that OOO is only big in art and architecture schools. First of all, what better place to start? And second, OOO is far more widely read in departments of philosophy than nearly all of its critics. For important reasons, philosophy as a discipline (especially continental philosophy) moves much more slowly than other fields. This has its advantages, but one of the disadvantages is that philosophy departments are slow in catching onto innovations.

Jon Cogburn: Analytic philosophy- When I first read your work and Meillassoux’s I naively thought that that they fit nicely into the narrative of analytic and continental philosophy coming together. As I read through the new version I still feel like analytic philosophers should be paying attention to this. For example, Meillassoux’s claim about the ‘might’ in the Correlationist’s anti-Idealism [(your words) ‘there might be an in-itself different from the for-us, and this “might” has to refer to a real itself’ (p. 29)] and the argument that the universal contingency must itself be a necessary claim are just two examples of non-trivial propositions that are typically philosophical catnip to analytic metaphysicians. But, in a discourse where only two people (Nicholas Rescher and Johanna Seibt) are paying serious attention to the entire tradition of process metaphysics, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m the only one paying attention. Do you have any thoughts about this with respect to Meillassoux and Speculative Realism? With respect to the ‘analytic/continental divide’ generally?

Graham Harman: Here we probably disagree, since I don’t see the analytic/continental divide closing any time soon. Different people offer different reasons for why the divide is supposedly ending. Brian Leiter belittles the divide, but only with the goal of claiming that analytic philosophers can do continental philosophy better than professional continentals can. On the continental side there are fewer who say the divide is ending, and here it is usually well-meaning people who have found useful materials for their work in Davidson, Kripke, Brandom, whoever.

My own view is that the analytic/continental divide runs very deep. Franz Brentano gave an important lecture in Vienna on phases in the history of philosophy in the 1890s, before the analytic/continental divide began, but I think he saw the future more clearly than others. Brentano said that philosophy is in one sense like the natural sciences, with specialized progress on well-defined research problems. But in another sense it is like the visual arts, which do not progress uniformly, but go through periodic waves of ripeness and decadence. This is the difference between analytic and continental philosophy, and it is a fairly basic difference between two ways of looking at intellectual progress. Brentano’s admirers in analytic philosophy often deliberately ignore the ‘fine arts’ part, but it must not be ignored.

Neither of these orientations should be dismissed too quickly, since both have something important to teach us. Far from being ‘merely sociological’, far from being a mere geographical inaccuracy which forgets that Vienna is on the European continent too, the analytic/continental divide strikes very deeply at the two-faced nature of truth. Rather than expecting the two approaches to be unified, we can expect both to be replaced simultaneously by something more compelling. But I have no prediction to make as to when that might happen. It could end in the next decade, or the analytic/continental divide could linger in roughly its current form for another few centuries. People are not taking the divide and its consequences seriously enough.

Jon Cogburn: Continental Philosophy- At two consecutive Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) conferences and two consecutive Pittsburgh Summer Schools in Contemporary Philosophy, in the meetings and talks where Meillassoux was discussed I discerned a couple of changes. While Meillassoux’s critique of Correlationism was initially bitterly rejected (usually using the very strategies he critiques in the book), the party line now seems to be to encourage all of us to move on because there’s nothing new to see here. Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Derrida, etc. believed in tables and whatnot, so why worry? In the book (p. 81) you note in passing that this can be understood as a measure of just how successful the critique of Correlationism is. There’s a third response though, one which would involve granting the seriousness of the critique and making a constructive attempt to reread French Soixante-Huitards, German Idealists (including and especially Schopenhauer), and German Critical Theorists the way you reread Heidegger in Tool Being, while being honest that the new readings are radical revisions of received interpretive wisdom. Though she might not accept the characterization, my colleague Deborah Goldgaber is doing something very much like this with respect to Derrida on time. Her project is interesting and I consider her a philosophical ally. Brad Elliot Stone is now encouraging people to read the soixante-huitards in terms of Strawson’s old distinction between descriptive and revisionary metaphysics. Lee Braver has a long term project that would be the mirror image of A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. As someone who travels more than any academic I know, and who is editing two book series, how much general movement have you seen in this direction? Any advice for people undertaking it?

Graham Harman: The question is not whether Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida personally believed in tables, but whether their philosophies believe in tables. If we ‘move on’ from this question, as you say people are now proposing, we will be back to Square One without having learned any lessons from the past decade.

Of the four names you mention, Heidegger’s philosophy probably comes the closest to ‘believing in tables’. That’s certainly how I’ve tried to read him. The tool-analysis shows us that tools have a reality deeper than their current presence to us. But there are a number of ways in which Heidegger’s brilliant analysis still falls short. (1) The analysis cannot be taxonomically restricted to ‘tools’ in the colloquial sense— hammers, screwdrivers, and so forth. It’s not clear that Heidegger himself makes this mistake, but plenty of his admirers do. (2) Heidegger reads the tool as part of a holistic system, and individual objects as merely vorhanden. In other words, Heidegger tends to conflate the withdrawn depth of things with the holistic unity of things. His ‘ontological difference’ between being and beings is twofold: on the one hand it refers to the difference between withdrawal and presence, but on the other hand it refers to the unity of Being versus the plurality of beings. This is also the flaw of ‘earth’ in Heidegger’s famous artwork essay, which confines multiplicity to the surface. (3) Heidegger’s tool-analysis is too closely related to the old praxis/theory distinction, as if holistic praxis were deeper than objectifying theory. But as I have argued frequently, praxis is no deeper than theory, and translates things into models or caricatures of those things. (4) Kant never allows us to talk about thing-thing interactions apart from any human mediation, and neither does Heidegger. This is something one can only get from Whitehead and sometimes from Latour: the equality of all interactions, whether humans are there or not. Already, then, it is impossible to say that Heidegger’s philosophy ‘believes in tables’ in any straightforward sense.

What about Merleau-Ponty? Not at all. Here is a thinker who offers a number of wonderful concrete insights, but whose philosophical originality is consistently exaggerated. Merleau-Ponty is credited with a major innovation for saying that the world looks at us just as we look at it. But this does not avoid correlationism, since human and world are still the two things looking at each other. What about parts of the world looking at each other? No mention of this from Merleau-Ponty that I can recall, but this is the sine qua non for any post-correlationist continental philosophy.

Derrida is the most impossible case of the four, since almost no other thinker (except Berkeley) more decisively excludes a thing-in-itself. It’s true that certain people (John Caputo comes to mind) occasionally make the argument that Derrida was a ‘realist’. Yet they do this only by twisting the word ‘realism’ around until it conveniently meets their specifications. Notice that they never aim their guns at past interpreters of Derrida for being anti-realists, which is precisely what would be happening if Derrida could be read as a bona fide realist. Caputo and his allies simply want to defang the word ‘realism’ by claiming that they are already beyond it. But this was the major problem with continental philosophy all along: a refusal to take the realism question seriously. Many interesting things happen once you do take it seriously.

As for Lee Braver, I greatly enjoyed A Thing of This World and learned a tremendous amount from it. But Braver is another author who takes a thoroughly anti-realist line while claiming that he is ‘keeping the question of realism open’ as the rest of us prematurely take a stand on it. I don’t think Braver is in a position to make this charge. He’s a flat-out anti-realist, and that’s what made his book so refreshingly frank.

Jon Cogburn: A response to Meillassoux’s challenge that I often hear from analytic and continental philosophers is that we are just doing transcendental epistemology, and what’s wrong with that? I usually respond that there’s nothing wrong with that, the problem is with the view (coming out of logical positivism in analytic philosophy and phenomenology in continental philosophy) that transcendental epistemology is the only thing one can do. But then the conversation tends to stop. The best the ‘philosophy = transcendental epistemology’ person can offer are repackaged versions of the Berkeley/Fichte argument about the impossibility of thinking of something that is not thought and the Kantian arguments against the ability to have knowledge of things in themselves. These arguments are not offered as limits of first-order knowledge about the world (doing so would grant too much to your contention that Correlationism veers into Idealism) but rather as pragmatic limits of the philosopher’s explanatory task. But I still get a strong ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ vibe here. I know that you’ve thought very deeply about all of this, and it would be great to hear your thoughts.

Graham Harman: Epistemology is really just metaphysics with an alibi. Take one example of someone who claims that I do metaphysics without a prior epistemological critique of the possibility of metaphysics: Ray Brassier. Brassier has said that I can’t just ‘metaphysically’ posit a difference between real and sensual objects, but instead I should do as he does and offer ‘criteria’ for what differentiates real from unreal. Yet if you look a bit more closely, what he’s really claiming is that there’s a difference between two kinds of ‘images’: the scientific image and the manifest image (this comes from Sellars, of course). Yet this entails a metaphysics of images in which one kind of image simply has priority over the others. But this is simply idealism. In fact, most ‘epistemology’ is just idealist metaphysics with a pragmatic alibi to prevent it from obviously sliding into Fichte or even Berkeley.

Jon Cogburn: Readers of your answers above will already have a pretty good idea of where we are. I’d like to close with a question about where we are going. What cool stuff (with respect to your own work and others) do you see happening over the next five to ten years?

Graham Harman: The most interesting point, now as ever, is that everyone ten years from now will be ten years older. What makes this truism so important is that even if none of us were to change our philosophical views at all over the next ten years (and we will all change somewhat), things will still be very different, since our generational positions will have changed. Speculative Realism cannot remain an insurrection by outsiders forever, because in ten years we will all be closing in on age sixty— at which point insurrection is difficult and even undesirable. The new uprisings will be coming from people born in the mid-1990s. The Speculative Realists will either be forgotten (unlikely) or be established, well-known figures who are widely read and heard, but not directly involved in the new controversies among the young who have read us and reacted to us in sometimes unpredictable ways.

Harman cover art.indd Graham Harman is the author of Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, Second Edition and the series editor of the Speculative Realism series published by Edinburgh University Press. He’s widely regarded as one of the key names in Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Philosophy. Graham is Distinguished University Professor at the American University in Cairo. His previous books include Tool-Being, Guerrilla Metaphysics, Heidegger Explained, Prince of Networks, Towards Speculative Realism, Circus Philosophicus, L’Objet quadruple and The Prince and the Wolf with Bruno Latour and Peter Erdélyi. Graham blogs over at

Jon Cogburn is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Louisiana State University, and another mover and shaker in the Speculative Realism field. He is the translator, with Mark Allan Ohm, of Tristan Garcia’s Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, also published in Edinburgh University Press’ Speculative Realism series. He’s currently preparing a new book project that meditates on and responds to Garcia, which we’re very excited about! He is the author of several articles on the philosophy of logic, epistemology, metaphysics and aesthetics, and co-author of Philosophy through Video Games and co-editor of Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy, both with Mark Silcox. Jon is one of the blogging collective at PhilPercs – you can read all of Jon’s posts here.

Speculative Realism banner copyFind out more about the Speculative Realism series and browse the books on the Edinburgh University Press website

UPDATE: responses to this post from around the blogosphere:

1 comment Add Comment

Leave a Reply