Who Is Taking Harman’s Theory Seriously?
Levi writes in defense of Harman’s so-called Theory of Vicarious Causation, after summoning the authority of the Principle of Charity a principle by whose force he tells me that I must assume that Harman actually knows what he is talking about when he proposes a brand new theory of causation. First my description, then his rejection of it:
Do you read as coherent that when a baseball hurls into a windshield it must FIRST send a representation of itself INTO the glass, and then it must brush this “vicar” into a state of phenomenenal breakdown, a breakdown which THEN results in the baseball cracking the glass? Does this make any sense to you? Aside from projecting a human caricature of experience and cognition, in what way does this actually seem to reveal how objects interact without human beings? (which I wrote at anotherheideggerblog)
The characterization of Harman’s position above is clearly absurd. Harman’s thesis is not that objects must first encounter other objects under the form of a “sensuous vicar” and then relate to them. Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of.
This is how Levi characterizes the Principle of Charity, something he feels that I have violated:
Rather, the principle of charity is a necessary condition for philosophical discourse, requiring that we present the positions of other thinkers in the most reasonable and plausible light before proceeding to criticism of that position. Working on the premise that our interlocutor is a reasonable and intelligent person that genuinely wants to get at the truth, explain features of the world, and understand things– a premise that should be granted at the beginning of dialogue and revoked only when proven otherwise –we should ask ourselves, with respect to our interpretations of the positions of others, “is this a position that a reasonable person would endorse or advocate? If our impression of another’s position is that it is batshit crazy insane, then it is likely we have misinterpreted the other person’s position, not that the author is making the absurd claim.”
Obviously Levi did not follow my string of posts on Harman’s Theory of Causation when I originally posted them many months ago (and linked at the bottom), posts which were more than generous in terms of Charity. I sincerely wished to extract and find agreement with every possible coherence I could find, as one would see if you actually read my exegetic struggles with the said theory. Indeed when I found I could not make full sense of it I blamed myself, as Levi suggests, and this lead me to create diagrams of all the objects and their supposed interactions, and when the theory didn’t make sense even then, I even checked with Harman (with whom I was on good terms with at the time), to make sure that I got all the working parts right. And affirmed that I did. No one that I know of has gone this far in trying to local the sense of his theory. The Charity was immense and willingly given. [It seems though that Levi in making his assessment of my explication and my criticism has not even bothered to read my posts on the theory, but has simply Uncharitably attributed them to an intitial uncharitable disposition on my part. This is quite common for Levi as he regularly reads his critics in the worst possible light, his rhetoric often rising to literally atrocious levels.]
Harman sans Phenomenology?
But more than this, in his defense of Harman’s Theory of Causation and its supposed non-anthropomorphic nature, Levi does not select a quote from Harman’s theory (the essay which he seems not to have actually read or read closely), nor even from Harman himself, but from Michael over at Complete Lies who presents an ENTIRELY non-phenomenological reading of Harman’s theory.
As Michael writes over at PE, confessing the expermental nature of his take on Harman’s causation:
“This is the gamble I’m making. It may fail, but I’m considering it an experiment in understanding. I want to see if OOP could be presented and understood with no post-Kantian material. This would obviously change things, but I am hoping it will lead to new understandings and clarifications.”
Harman’s theory is whole-hog a phenomenological theory (hello?). In fact the problematic anthropomorphism RESIDES in the phenomenology and the core assumption that Husserl’s Cartesian sensuous objects are explanatory of what non-human causation is. Take out the phenomenology and you go a long way towards taking out the anthropomorphism…you also go a long way toward destroying Harman’s theory altogether. Michael of course admits that by taking out the phenomenology he has performed a great gamble as I cited, but it is absolutely silly to appeal to Michael attempted rescue of Harman’s theory from its phenomenology to explain what precisely Harman himself is claiming. It has removed a core component of the point that Harman is trying to get across, and it is this core component (and how it is said to interact with other elements) which I have described far above with baseballs and windshields. It should be obvious that I am under no obligation to explain how Harman’s own theory might be readable without reference to any post-Kantian material when in fact Harman’s ENTIRE theory is about how post-Kantian Husserl and Heidegger objects are necessary to understand causation in the first place. Michael makes no reference to Harman’s theory of causation essay in his experiment (cool as it is), and the reason for this is that it wants nothing to do with phenomenology or Husserl. Levi’s turn toward a no-post-Kantian explanation of what Harman is claiming in unreserved and exclusively post-Kantian terms is beyond ludicrous, and shows the least respect for Harman’s theory one can imagine, a refusal to take it seriously on its own terms.
It seems I have been unfair in criticizing Levi recently for remaining silent on the incoherence of Harman’s theory of causation because in fact it seems that Levi has NOT actually read it but only about it (as is evident by his inability to reference the essay in any way shape or form in support of what he thinks it claims, nor recognize those claims when made explicit). Here is the essay.
As to my uncharitable assessment of the essay’s depiction, my reading is fair and reflects what Harman has asserted in his essay. Levi seems to have greatest trouble with the successive nature of the interactions between real objects as mediated by their sensuous vicars. It is that he thinks Harman is just concerned with selectivity and not the actual relations of which selectivity is made. But this is EXACTLY as Harman describes it, emphasizing this temporal quality of the imagined relations, in fact he speaks in terms of lag and interaction:
“We must discover how real objects poke through into the phenomenal realm, the only place where one relates to another. The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensuous plane to allow them to make contact, just as corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb – separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by distant signals.”
*cited from the essay none of the supporters of the essay seem to want to cite.
“There is a constant meeting of assymetrical partners on the interior of some unified object: a real one meeting the senuous vicar or deputy of another. Causation occurs when these obstacles are some how broken or suspended. In seventeenth century terms, the side-by-side proximity of real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intension and another real object lying outside it. In this way shaves or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remained quarantined in private vacuums.”
So, when Levi makes his Charitable appeal to Michael’s non-Phenomenological interpretation of Harman’s Phenomenological acount of causation…
Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of.
This denuded attempt to save Harman’s theory misses the entire failing of the theory itself, its proposed explanation of just what that SELECTIVITY consists of, ie how causation occurs. Where is Levi’s grasp of the nature of the “distant signal” Harman says is sent out from the vacuum-packed “real” object? Where is Levi’s awareness of processes of corrosion that are said necessarily to occur at the level of the “sensuous plane”? Where is the conceptual nature of what a “vicar” is (a vicar is a Representation, hello? Harman also uses the term “deputy”) appreciated or even acknowledged? Can it be the case that the only way to be charitable to Harman’s causation one has to strip it of ALL phenomenological and Husserlian object basis? This is not charity, this is plain old mis-reading, or as I suspect, non-reading. It seems that as Levi appeal to Michael’s version of the essay and not the essay itself, it is quite likely that he has not read the essay he defends, just as he had not read the evolution of my treatment of it. Instead we have in the usual Levi Bryant sense, a wild invocation of a “principle” (he just loves these principles) without understanding either the contexts he is applying them to, or really the principle itself.
Charity and Credit Deferred
To take up the Principle of Charity I go to Donald Davidson’s most famous positioning of it, which argues that the only reason why we can make ANY sense of anyone is through the initial and primary assumption that they are saying, doing, intending, is rational. This is foundational to cognitive, intersubjective relatability. And this we gladly presume, as I am Davidsonian. And one can see of course this is also something to be extended to theories proposed. We have to assume an initial optimality of coherence to as to see what is being attempted, how it all SHOULD work together. But this is not an infinite credit. The reason why one is charitable in this way is so that when testing the coherence of a theory it is against the backdrop of this intial coherence that we come to understand its failings. You try to make it work, and you try to make it work so that when it eventually fails you can say to yourself, “hey, this stuff is non-sense or in need of a radical overhaul”, or hopefully “With a little tweak here it functions smoothly”).
Now it seems that Levi wasn’t even charitable enough to actually read Harman’s theory, or if he read it he read it so shallowly he didn’t even pay attention to what it was claiming. Instead he distanced himself from it, and did not challenge its merit as an honest friend might do. He doesn’t seem to be familiar with it at al, in factl. Instead he has appealed to an non-Phenomenological secondary treatment of it to attempt a summary which actually dismisses almost the whole of Harman’s claim about the nature of causation, intensional objects, Husserl, the whole ball of wax. I would certainly agree with Levi that what Harman is trying to do is something of the bedimmed “selectivity” of objects, so to speak, but Harman is trying to stake out the actual mechanism, the means of connectives in selection and interaction upon a very specific armature of relations; primary among these is the Phenomenological intension of objects, and in the case of “vicars” a representationalist conception of interaction. The processes of real objects sending signals to their vicars in other objects, and these vicars being “poked” or “poked through” or “corroding” makes up the actual mechanism of causation that he provides however vaguely. To miss this is simply to abuse his theory altogether, to pretend that it is not what it is. Try not to explain away or simply IGNORE what Harman is trying hard to assert and describe.
Harman is rather explicit in his essay about this, and only a very lazy reading of his essay would miss it. It is the connection between elements that is vital:
“What remains to be seen is how these elements interact, how one type of relation transforms into another, how new real objects paradoxically arise from the interaction between real objects and sensual ones, and even how sensual objects manage to couple and uncouple like spectral rail cars. These sort of problems are the subject matter of object-oriented philsophy: the inevitable mutant offspring of Husserl’s intentional objects and Heidegger’s real ones.”
Levi has it all wrong when he thinks he has encapsulated Harman’s theory of causation: “The point is that there is always more possibilities open to any object than those actualized in any particular relation the object enters into.” This is not the point of his theory at all, only the presumption that drives the necessity of a theory of causation in the first place. The burden is in stating how and why THIS particular relation has been actualized, and not THAT or another relation has been actualized. His entire essay is an argument (and hopefully not just a fantasy) of “how these elements interact” and it is for that reason that the exact nature of their interaction so claimed comes under criticism. Only by vacating Harman’s theory of causation of all content, as Levi does, removing from it any claim for how the elements interact, any reference to the central role of representational phenomenology, do you end up with Levi’s very compassionate but empty reading. It would be really nice if those that claim to be charitable readers of Harman’s theory actually concern themselves with the stated aims of the piece rather than coming up inventive ways of avoiding its explicit content.
I would add that I praise Harman for attempting his theory of causation, precisely in the terms that he attempted it. It was a bold try. The reason one cannot simply ignore what Harman tries, the exact depiction of how causation occurs in particular to the assumption of a Phenomenological core (which Michael at Complete Lies does away with), is that Harman knows that if his four fold is actually to be shown as coherent, it is precisely this kind of theory, THIS theory (or one very similar) that has to take hold. It was just for this reason why Harman attempted it, and is continuing to work on it (as it is merely absurd or tremendously failing as it is). The reason why Levi’s failure to read the essay with any precision constitutes an abuse (as does Michael’s non-Phenomenological reading) is that Harman’s theory of causation is the joint-work of his entire metaphysics. And it is just for this reason that this theory in all of its anthropomorphic splendor, projecting Husserl’s objects and actions into every object in the world, displays the incoherence (or one might say fantasy nature) of his metaphysics. Harman needs his theory of causation to save his Speculation.
A short word about Charity and the extent of it. Levi in the past has accused me of not extending the Principle of Charity to his own wildly swinging theories as if the work of the explanation actually falls upon me, the reader. This is nonsense. Initially one assumes that someone knows what they are talking about, but as one encounters incoherences or rhetorical tendencies at deception (as one does with Levi), critical questions increase, rather than go down. When the car seems to be running fine, you get in and ride in it. When it starts to make a knocking sound, and then wobble a bit when steering, you get out. You presume the car can be fixed, and you try to fix it, but one is under no obligation to presume either that it MUST be fixable, or worse, that it isn’t even in need for repair.
This is the problem with some of the Speculation versions of philosophy operating at the upper end of the internet (because I don’t want to speak of the weightier writers of the now defunct Speculative Realism). Some seem to imagine that the Principle of Charity somehow works as a fill-in for the connective parts of a theory, that the theory itself MUST make sense, all the while remaining in the shadows of mere “speculation” (hey, don’t criticize it, I’m still working on it!). This goes right to the point I made about Speculative Realism and financial Speculative Bubbles which has caused something of a stir. Indeed in financial trading there are principles of Charity which ground and even drive the investment in different products. But one does not wisely invest in ANY financial product, or even accept any form of promisory note, just because one has to be generous. The economy of exchange is founded on the possibility of testing the merit of representational claims, and philosophy is no different. The problem I have had with some versions of Speculative Realism has to do with the difference between “This is a cool idea for a car!” and “This is a car.” The one you speculate, test, think about, maybe model and one day build, the second one you don’t get into unless it shows itself to do what it claims to do. I’m not against the first kind at all, in fact my entire blog (and many of the lower tier Speculativists’ as well) are exactly of this nature: This is a cool idea for a car! But it seems that some want to do the philosophical thing and make the further claim, and in Levi’s case, basically bluff your way into This is a car! with all kinds of references to Priniciples and fallacies, name-droppings, borrowings and science references. Fair enough, if you want to play philosopher, go ahead, but when checking under the hood before revealed a bunch of disconnected wires and old car parts and lots of very gruff “Hey, what do you think you doing in there!” most would pass on checking any further. But in either case, criticism as to what is being claimed (fantasy car, or real car) is just what is needed to make what we have created better, so it works.
I would say that my criticism of Harman’s causation was the most charitable thing I could have done. And recent pressure I have put on the allies of Harman to actually engage it has done more good for the essay and what it was attempting to do than a thousand tepid avoidances or radical reinterpretations. At least Harman has a chance to renew the incoherence and see if he can rescue it, to speak of “distant signals” and “corrosive sensuous film” with more argumentative force. Levi might actually read the essay this time, maybe Michael’s non-Phenomenological causation gets Harman to change something fundamental. In any case, I don’t believe in black boxes, and presume that the more attention the essay gets the better the chance that Harman’s metaphysics will find the causal explanation that would justify its claims. I’m all for that. In the meantime, when Harman tells us that when a bug hits the windshield of a truck and has absolutely zero causal effect on the truck, an example of one way causation, we justifiably should laugh, and to do so charitably.
For those who would like to read the uncharitable approach I took towards the essay, these were my posts in evolution. Unlike some, I actually refer to the essay – in great detail – and attempt to grasp the specificity of its claims.
My three overall points to Harman’s Theory of Causation are:
1. Insofar as it does work it is a problematic Orientalization of causal relations through a mediating exotic other (a cultural values insertion).
2. Insofar as it projects Husserlian Cartesian representationalism into every object relation it is one vast anthropomorphization and quite far from being “object oriented”.
3. Insofar as it fails to provide an account of the relations between posited elements it ceases even to be a theory of causation for it lacks the explanation itself.
How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?
The “sensuous vicar” of Causation
More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume
Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century
Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”
Graham Harman’s “essence” contra DeLanda, à la Campanella
Vicarious Causation Diagrammed
The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)
The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert
Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic