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Graham Harman is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Here he chats with Thiago Pinho about his work on the metaphysics of objects, which led to the development of Object Oriented Ontology.
Hello Professor Harman. How did you first come to philosophy?
Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, my mother saw that I was a philosopher before I saw it myself. When I was thirteen or fourteen, a philosophy professor who lived in our town offered a brief class on the subject, and my mother signed me up for it without my asking. It was a fairly standard introduction in which we read Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. At that age I saw these dialogues as little more than boring and pious discussions of virtue, wisdom, and the like. I wasn’t ready for Plato. At some point in the next year or two, my mother again signed me up for a night class, taught at our high school by a charismatic teacher on the Philosophy of Law. That one interested me a bit more. We discussed case histories, such as when two people in a lifeboat ate a third in order to survive: should they be found guilty of murder or not? But still I felt no vocation for this sort of thing. But we had a set of encyclopedias at home – once again acquired by my mother, who is a brilliant person though without much formal education – and I used to read articles in it frequently. One night, at the age of sixteen, I decided to read the ‘Philosophy’ article in the encyclopedia. From that moment I was hooked. What interested me this time was the way the article presented the history of philosophy as a competing set of radical theories about reality. In other words, it was my first contact with metaphysics rather than with philosophy as a discourse on justice or law; and that first taste of metaphysics spoke to me more directly and movingly. At heart I am a metaphysician, and that was the entry into philosophy that I needed.
In 1999 you labelled your approach ‘Object Oriented Philosophy’. In 2009 Levi Bryant called it ‘Object Oriented Ontology’ (OOO), a label which stuck. How do you define it?
Two features of OOO seem to me most important, though as a group we only agree on the first of them. This first feature is the idea of ‘flat ontology’. This means that all objects are equally objects, and above all that human beings are not different in kind from all non-humans, as if the universe were split into two basic types of things. The second feature of OOO, crucial for me, though not found in Bryant, for example, is the notion that there are exactly two dualisms governing the universe. The first is the famous OOO distinction between the ‘withdrawn real’ [Kant’s world as it is in itself, Ed] and the directly accessible sensual realm. The second is the equally important gap between objects and their qualities. This second point is often completely ignored by my critics, and sometimes even by my allies, but no understanding of OOO is possible without paying attention to it.
What do you keep from Bruno Latour and his Actor Network Theory, and what do you criticize?
Latour is destined for the history books due to his recognition of the real structure of modernity and the need to overcome it. Modernity attempts to define reality as two and only two pure zones: (1) human beings, and (2) everything else. This is the bad style of modern thought that I call ‘taxonomy’ or ‘onto-taxonomy’. But Latour’s solution is not a good one. He ultimately thinks the way to get rid of this modern duality is to say that both the human and the non-human are present everywhere at all times in a hybridized mixture. This leads him down the idealist-sounding path of arguing that nothing can exist without the human who assembles it into existence. Consider, for example, his idea that tuberculosis cannot have existed in Ancient Egypt because it hadn’t been discovered yet. This is why scientists mostly hate Latour, and most philosophical realists have little use for him. But his posing of the problem of modernity is brilliant, and will eventually be seen as a turning point, once we have put the era of onto-taxonomy behind us.
You’re a realist, but not a materialist. How would you characterise your position?
What I usually call myself is a ‘formalist’. I mean this in the medieval and Leibnizian sense of ‘substantial forms’ – referring to forms hidden in the things themselves rather than forms abstracted from the things by the human mind.
The problem with materialism is that it ends up being a form of reductionism. Traditional materialism reduces everything to particles swerving through the void. This is an ‘undermining’ method that cannot account for the emergence of new things above the tiniest level. And the more recent materialism of Cultural Studies simply means that everything is historical, contingent, formed through social practices, and so forth. This is an upside-down version of traditional metaphysical materialism, since it reduces objects upwards, to their social relations. This makes it vulnerable to the critiques any realist philosopher can make. For example: if something is nothing more than its current set of social relations, how should it be able to enter into new relations in the future? Everything should be frozen in place in its current relational network, with nothing moving at all.
Should we return to Immanuel Kant?
Immanuel Kant is probably the emblematic modern philosopher; even more so than René Descartes. If we want to go back and address the point where modern philosophy took the wrong fork in the road, I see no way to do it without wrestling directly with Kant, rather than just with his heirs – and there are dozens of important heirs, although Husserl and Heidegger are my own two favorites.
The most famous and most influential argument against Kant is that of the German Idealists: ‘We can’t think of something outside of thought without turning it into a thought; therefore, the thing-in-itself [the world independent of human perception and thought] is a self-contradictory idea.’ The supposedly remorseless logic of this argument actually rests on an equivocation between two different kinds of ‘thought’. Whereas OOO holds that we can mentally allude to something outside thought without thinking it in the sense of literally having mental access to its qualities, the German Idealist argument ignores anything like allusion: either you think something in the strict sense of the term, or you’re left with vague gesticulations and mystical hand-waving. No one else seems to have recognized that this is simply a bad argument in the form of Meno’s Paradox [“If we don’t already know what X is, how will we know X when we find it?”].
Anyway, the real problem with Kant is not the thing-in-itself or finitude, both of which I regard as compelling philosophical discoveries. The real problem is that Kant thinks that the thing-in-itself only haunts human beings, when in fact the withdrawal of reality from direct access can be found even in brute causal relations.
Some critics say that your approach is too radical because it compares the human being to an object like any other. How do you respond to this?
My flat ontology – ‘everything is equally an object’ – is just a starting point. But metaphysics must begin by not accepting any pre-existing clichés about how the world is divided up. The most dangerous prejudice in this respect, from the medievals all the way up to Kant (1724-1804), was their assumption that the Creator and the created are utterly different in kind. For moderns – and that still includes us in the early twenty-first century – our danger is that we have a model with human beings on one side and everything else on the other.
In his article ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ (2012), Alexander Galloway made a remark about OOO ‘putting humans on the same level as garbage’. What bothers him about flat ontology is that he wants some vague form of political Leftism to provide the conditions of access to all other philosophy. This becomes impossible as soon as OOO forbids the human from being the sole gateway to philosophy. The fact is, the Left as we know it – while better than the Right as we know it – emerged from an era of philosophical idealism, which is why I suspect it must be rethought from the ground up. But more importantly, whatever your political views, flat ontology means that they cannot be built into your metaphysics.
You once wrote that ontology [the study of being] has nothing to do with politics. What did you mean?
I’d put it a bit differently, and say there is no immediate short-cut between a philosophy and its political ramifications. Consider that most or all of the greatest philosophers have appealed to people on both sides of the political spectrum. There are Left and Right Hegelians, Nietzscheans, and Heideggerians. Heidegger was a Nazi himself; but his numerous admirers on the Left include Herbert Marcuse. And everyone uses Kant. But look at a case such as contemporary French metaphysician and political philosopher Alain Badiou. I think the jury is still out as to just how important in the history of philosophy he will turn out to be. But my biggest worry about him at present is that his appeal is largely to the political Left, who see him as a powerful theoretical defender of their most cherished views. But it seems to me that there’s something arbitrary about the fact that Badiou only allows political events to take some form of ‘the communist invariant’. Does he really think there is nothing to be learned from any place other than the Left? Is it really impossible to have a political event that teaches some moderate or even conservative lesson? I’m not so sure. It’s only so if you’re willing to take all the failures of the Left and call them successes. For instance, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 was just such a failure? Badiou and Žižek double down in their support of that revolution, and it was certainly a stirring event – I was in Egypt while it happened. But I know many Egyptians who would prefer to return to the days of Mubarak; and before we dismiss them as wishy-washy conciliators, we ought to look more closely at what the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square miscalculated.
I think we learn two key political lessons from Latour, though he is not normally viewed as a political philosopher. First, modern philosophy circles around the question of the ‘state of nature’ – of whether humans are naturally good or evil. With Latour’s shift to considering the political role of inanimate things, it seems to me that human nature fades in importance. One of the main arguments that conservatives like to hammer home is that human nature has never changed one bit: that we are a dangerous animal; that a thorough knowledge of ancient thought and history will show us how a wiser group of thinkers learned from the ugliness of human nature to build the needed caution into the polis [Greek city state]; that attempts to create utopia often lead to hell on earth; and so forth. But if human nature is no longer the key to the political picture, this argument is severely weakened. Second, there has been a tendency on both the Left and Right – though more on the Left – to think that political knowledge is possible: knowledge for instance that we were born free and were placed in chains by a corrupt society; or that we are exploited by the capitalist class for the extraction of surplus value… If there is one point where we can learn from thoughtful conservatives, it has to do with their greater degree of wariness in the political sphere. There are in fact numerous occasions when simply preserving what we have is the wisest goal. We can’t just go around the world shouting about how immoral and unjust it is. Ultimately, politics and morality are two separate ‘modes of existence’, to cite yet another political insight of Latour’s.
In addition to Bruno Latour, what would your main social theory references be? Would they include Manuel DeLanda?
Yes, DeLanda would certainly appear on the list. I learned a great deal from his A New Philosophy of Society (2006). Although I hear social theorists complain about certain aspects of it, they keep citing it by the thousands, even more than his previous books, so they must be getting something out of it after all.
For my purposes the opening pages of the book are key. There, DeLanda makes a distinction that will be crucial in the coming years for OOO, though he does not use the terminology I do. He talks about how, even though human beings are a part of human society, social structures have a reality not dependent on the human mind’s conception of them. I have taken to calling this the difference between the human being as ‘ingredient’ and ‘observer’ in any given situation. This difference played an important role in my recent book Art and Objects (2020), and it will only become more important to my critique of onto-taxonomy. Above all, it allows us to see what’s wrong with all the hipsterism of recent decades about ‘self-reflexivity’: for a human to think about human society is not ‘self-reflexive’, since the ‘I’ who is part of society and the ‘I’ who observes and talks about it are in some sense not the same ‘I’.
You consider the art world central to OOO. What role does art play in your theory?
OOO is suspicious of the scope of all forms of literalism – of which knowledge is just the pre-eminent example.
Literalism is defined in OOO as that which conflates a thing with the sum total of its properties – as was the case for David Hume, who not only reduced apples to bundles of qualities, he also reduced human selves to bundles of perceptions. Aesthetic experience, I hold, is the kind of experience that drives a wedge between objects and their qualities, which in turn also requires the beholder to step in for the ‘object’ side of this duality, since in artistic experience the object withdraws from view and we have to replace it with ourselves. To be more precise, I am speaking here of the ‘art experience’, not ‘aesthetics’ in the OOO sense, since aesthetics in OOO refers to a much wider object-quality division, which we find in our experience of time and even in sheer causal interaction. In the modern period there is also the tendency to assume that the truest deep thinkers are scientists. Now, I yield to no-one in my admiration for Newton, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Einstein, and Bohr; but why should I admire them more than Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Picasso? There are cognitive achievements of the human race that move in a different element from that of knowledge.
You have stated that philosophy does not talk about knowledge but rather is a love for knowledge, so we have only an indirect contact with knowledge. How so?
This is analogous to my interest in aesthetics. Socrates practices philosophia, not epistemology or natural science. He asks about the definitions of things, but never reaches any definitions that are satisfactory. He pleads ignorance, and insists that he has never been anyone’s teacher. I read these not as ironic expressions of superiority to the masses, but as a genuine awareness of his own ignorance. Knowledge is great. The human race needs knowledge in order to survive. But knowledge is not everything.
You said once that philosophy needs to be funny. Is this something you learned from Bruno Latour and Slavoj Žižek?
Latour and Žižek are certainly funny in a way that Heidegger definitely is not. In fact, this was one of the things that most attracted me to Latour’s work when I first encountered it in 1998. Later Gerard de Vries, the prominent Dutch Latourian, told me that he had been drawn to Latour’s work years earlier for exactly the same reason. But humor was important to me as a theoretical topic long before I first read Latour. Probably the best term paper I wrote at DePaul University was an attempt to reconstruct Aristotle’s theory of comedy based on a few hints in his Poetics. I wrote it very early, probably 1991, at a time when the first hints of OOO were still just taking shape. This is probably because what I consider to be my first original philosophical insight – which dates to my undergraduate years in 1987 – was the realization that the definition of intentionality in Husserl and the definition of comedy in Aristotle have a considerable overlap. Intentionality means that in any mental act the mind takes some object seriously, while comedy is about observing an agent take something seriously that we consider to be beneath us in some sense. This is Aristotle’s idea that ‘comedy is about people worse than we are’, in which ‘worse’ means only that they take objects seriously that we do not, however higher than us they may be in other respects.
In your opinion, what are the most pressing questions for us today?
For me it is environmental questions rather than capitalism. The old Soviet Bloc screwed up the environment at least as badly as Western capitalism, and – like it or not – we’re going to need some capitalist tools to work our way out of this environmental crisis. Capitalism appears to be degenerating into a plutocratic phase that cannot provide its own exit. But I’m troubled by how easy it is to score moral high ground points these days simply by decrying ‘neoliberalism’. I’m afraid that most of the anti-capitalists I’ve encountered seem to think they have everything figured out, which is always the most dangerous situation to be in. Environmental issues at least have the virtue of being somewhat elusive as well as pressing, which means in my eyes that global warming is more likely to provoke new thought than an already well-established critique of capitalism that has simply repeated the same complaints for more than a century.
What should a young philosopher learn?
A lot more than just philosophy. It is important to be open to and curious about any other field, including those that might seem completely uninteresting to you now. For example, I never had the least interest in the history of English gardens, until, while researching my architecture book, I discovered their great importance in the history of aesthetics. They represent the surprising influence of China on the development of English aesthetics, which in turn led to Romanticism and to Kant’s own aesthetics. Just keep your eyes and ears open and you may suddenly find yourself passionate about something you previously knew little about. I always try to remember that in 1987 I barely knew the first thing about Heidegger, but by little over a decade later had mastered his entire written corpus, simply because it became important to me in a way that it had not been important previously.
• Thiago Pinho is a PhD student in Social Sciences at the University of Bahia, Brazil.