Friday, June 28, 2013

Three Quick Notes on Harman

Graham Harman has just published An outline of object-oriented philosophy, Science Progress, Volume 96, Number 2, June 2013, pp. 187-199(13). It's available online for 60 days.

I've just read through it quickly and have some quick remarks.


On science, Harman says (pp. 180-190):
But there are two basic reasons why science cannot replace metaphysics. The first is that science itself is based on a metaphysics whose truth is by no means evident. In focusing on the forces and elements of nature, science tacitly assumes that these are more real than artificial compound things such as languages, societies, armies, class struggles, bridges, and rail networks. There is an unspoken reductionism at work here, as if the smallest constituents of the world possessed a reality that was withheld from the macro-sized entities that they compose.
I don't think so. Scientists may well adopt a reductionist philosophy, either critically or casually, when they're thinking more generally about the world. But it's a mistake to think that THAT's what science is based-on. Rather, in practice, science is based on a miscellaneous and ever-growing bunch of methods designed to arrive at objective knowledge of the world. So far those methods have worked best when "focusing on the forces and elements of nature" rather than when examining "artificial compound things such as languages, societies, armies, class struggles, bridges, and rail networks."

I don't see that there's anything in principle about the search for object knowledge that makes impossible to arrive at truths about languages, societies, class struggles and the rest. But arriving at objective truths about such things has proven to be difficult.


Then Harman approaches the nature of philosophy: "science aims to provide knowledge, while philosophy can do nothing of the sort" (p. 191). He goes on to point out that "philosophy in Greek is philosophia: love of wisdom, not wisdom itself."

This is a recurring motif in Harman's expositions and it always seems a bit thin. That is, whatever this philosophical wisdom is, it doesn't have the heft of connoted by the commonsense notion of the term "wisdom."

Harman goes on (pp. 191-192):
For the implication of philosophy is that we can never have knowledge of anything, not just of a certain limited number of things. Philosophy is not a form of knowledge, not a way of making reality directly present to the mind. Entities are not built out of knowable qualities, but can only be suggested indirectly or allusively by those qualities. While Socrates is often remembered for aggressively asking the definitions of words, it is too little remembered that he never actually reaches any definitions. This is not because Socrates is a wisecracking triumphalist, but because objects and their definitions are never interchangeable.
What is this "directly present to the mind"? Is that what scientists seek? It is by no means that they do. Perhaps, however, one becomes a philosopher by seeking such direct presence and end up battering your head against a wall. Wisdom emerges in the attempt to stand up after crumpling over in failure.

Anyhow, who actually believes that objects and their definitions are interchangeable?

Counter-factual exploration

In the sixth and last section of the essay Harman tells us what object-oriented philosophy is good for. It's good for counterfactual exploration. In the case of counterfactual history we could
ask what would have happened if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had survived the assassin’s bullet, if Hitler had made a drive for the Caucasian oilfields instead of for Stalingrad, or if Gore had defeated Bush in the Supreme Court case of 2000, we are not arrogantly aspiring to an impossible historical clairvoyance. Instead, we are trying to detach the Austro–Hungarian Empire, Hitler, Gore, and Bush from the actual events in which they actually became enmeshed, in order to zero in on those latent qualities and powers that they possessed but never manifested. (p. 197)
Well, OK. But what tools does OOP give us to conduct such explorations? None that I can see. Nor does it give us any in the study of literature, which Harman also mentions. I've quite a bit about that one in response to his piece in New Literary History so I won't repeat or even summarize that here (you can find those arguments at my SSRN page, HERE).

Yes. "In every field, the object-oriented method reminds us that an object is more than its constituent pieces, more than its relations, more than its qualities, and more than the events in which it happens to have participated so far." Now that OOP has reminded us it leaves us pretty much to our own devices, or the devices of existing disciplines, in investigating objects.

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