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Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says…

The Ghost of Kant

Graham Harman wants us to pay very close attention to what a metaphysical thinker says, and not what his framework for thinking implies:

What sorts of relations, then, would inanimate things have amongst each other? Well, “Heidegger never says.” But does this mean we can draw no conclusions about it? After spending so much time talking about how entities are both veiled and unveiled for human Dasein, it would have been quite easy for Heidegger, if he had thought of it, to say that “even cotton is both veiled and unveiled for the fire that consumes it.” If he ever had such a notion, why wouldn’t he have said it? It would have been a wonderfully shocking statement, and he would have wanted to draw attention to such a theory. And if it’s really so compatible with his philosophy, then why do orthodox Heideggerians treat me like I have three heads whenever I say it?

The reason is simple… Heidegger works within the framework of the Kantian philosophy of human access to the world (more)…

[update: the material quoted and quoted below no longer exists as Harman deleted his entire blog wherein such discussions and comments occurred]

In this “methodological” move, it seems to me that he conflates two things. There is the very framework that a thinker is thinking in, and then there are the cares and concerns of that philosopher, the perhaps the very reasons why he is using particular assumptions and assertions. And while we do go about imagining that we as philosophers are attacking merely the “structure” of thought, quite honestly we are doing so because of the intentions that it is put to (either consciously by the philosopher, or to some quiet degree, its social effects in history).

The Shock of Claims

So when Graham asks, it would have been quite easy for Heidegger, if he had thought of it, to say that “even cotton is both veiled and unveiled for the fire that consumes it.” If he ever had such a notion, why wouldn’t he have said it? The very plain answer is simply that Heidegger did not care about objects in this way. It likely was meaningless within his interests to point out the possibility, even if there are aspects of it buried in his approach. Perhaps it would be something like pointing out to the writers of the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” implies that in their proposed country blacks should hold equal rights with whites, and the Jefferson might consider freeing his slaves. It simply wasn’t the point of the equality.

(It is notable that Graham sees as a very good reason Heidegger might have for making a philosophical claim (the one Graham has been currently making), “It would have been a wonderfully shocking statement, and he would have wanted to draw attention to such a theory.” Call me naive, but making a splash and turning heads really isn’t what drives most large scale thinkers, though I can see Graham’s love for Nietzschean style showing through here. He does not seem to consider as essential factors other than the “shock value” of an idea. And in Nietzsche’s defense, at least the Nietzschean outright methodology of shock was coupled with a metaphysical valuation of shock…said he trying to “save” Europe. For some reason the argumentative point, “Philosopher X certainly did not believe Y, for if he did he would have made the claim because it would have gotten him so much attention,” seems more self-revelatory than critical.

Evidence of Harman’s over-sensitivity to shock value can be seen in the introductory comments of his talk “Intentional Objects For Non-Humans”. There he faced the problem of how to alarm an audience of panpsychists:

Normally, a panpsychist theory would be the most shocking part of any lecture- but at a conference on “non anthropological subjectivity” like this one, listeners will already be prepared to grant subjectivity to beings such as flowers and grains of dust. The part about objects will be the more surprising of the two parts today.

Perhaps this is key to understanding the motivations behind Graham Harman’s otherwise entertaining characterizations of the world. They are meant to be surprises, and possess a kind of surprise-value. The problem with “surprise-value” is that it can either point to a radically new idea, or simple incoherence of concept, the difference to be made in explication.)

Taking this into our stride, Chris [Graham’s interolcutor] was confused by Graham’s foreclosure against extrapolations upon a thinker’s beliefs,

“I cannot tell if you’re claiming that philosopher X thinks no relations happen between inanimate objects that are isolated from humans (IOTAIFH?), that philosopher X may think they do but can’t account for them, that philosopher X may think they do and maybe could account for them but thinks they are uninteresting, that philosopher X may think they do privately but metaphysically excludes the possibility, at least implicitly, that philosopher X is more concerned with access, or what. I’d like to respond a bit about Heidegger at some point but I’ve lost a sense of what you’re claiming.” (here)

It seems that we can get closer than this and broadly say that Graham wants to be credited with an invention of the possibilities of Heideggerian thinking, and not let them be attributed to Heidegger himself. But he would also like to use in whole cloth the Heideggerian object-orientation that he does feel largely Heidegger carried out. In a sense, he wants to take Heidegger out beyond the orbit of his own human Dasein planet. We can see this in his clarification to Chris,

But here’s the simplest form of my claim…it’s not so much a matter of whether things can exist apart from humans (it’s all too easy to stave off the solipsism charge by conceding that there might be some uninteresting lump of something out there beyond us), but of whether things can relate apart from humans. And furthermore, whether this relation is taken to be ontologically of the same order as the relation between human and world. Kant and his heirs are typified above all else by putting the human/world relation at the center of the picture.

The question for me is, Heidegger is clearly in Harman’s view one of the heirs of Kant, Is Graham one of the heirs of Heidegger? He certainly methodologically puts the “human/world relation” at the center of the picture, for he works exclusively with Husserlian and Heideggerian concepts, and explicitly states that we must “think down” from “human cases”. Is he trying to keep the authenticity of traditional concepts, yet declare himself immune from their critique? He wants to be Kantian, but then excuse himself from such by projecting such “relating” onto all things (to my ear largely without any rigorous explanation).

The Question Answered

While he wants us not to think along with Badiou or Heidegger and credit them with aspectsof authorship of his own position, (he distinctly does not want any allies to his claims that would threaten their originality), he also wants us not to press too closely similiar critical attributions to his own work. He got very upset when I suggested that as an heir to binarizing Idealism and thus importing optical analogies of hiddenness, his concepts and colorful metaphors for the exotic inner world carry with them a problematic eroticization of the “sensual other”. This is a problem which is distinctly political in consequence in terms of real people in the world.  His counter-claim, “I never said that!”

One really has to acknowledge, apart from dramatized appeals to originality, that the great joy and significance in philosophy come in investigating just what philosophers “never said”. We want to uncover the implicit possibilities with the horizon of a philosopher’s thought. Part of this comes from the decided fact that philosophies arise in answer to specific questions. All the terms, concepts and illustrations are pulled into resource to address questions that pre-exist that philosophy, and in some sense work to re-frame the question as it had been previously answered. “He never said…” is often a product of “The question being answered did not require it”. But when we engage a particularly interesting philosopher, not only do we want to see if he/she answered the question that they have redescribed well, but we want to think along with them and see, imagine for ourselves, how they would then answer this other question? And while there may be a division between how would the “person” answer this question, and how would the philosophy itself answer the question, it is the latter of these two that is perhaps the more interesting.

And there is a further aspect of investigating a philosophy. We also ask, what questions is the philosophy repressing, keeping from being asked? What is being hidden by the very form of the answers given?

Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

The Backbone Concept

Graham Harman posts a brief summation of his thinking about the lasting historical heritage of a natural dichotomy in philosophy, occasionalism vs. skepticism. I can’t tell, maybe this was something of a response to my last post on his attempted complementary reading of Hume and Malebranche. If it is, it does not address the error of Malebranche and then Reid which produces this dichotomy of matching errors; but it does provide an interesting tracing of this split into contemporary philosophy (to some anticipated consternation of Kantians who thought Kant effectively changed the location of the Sun, for the better).

But Graham’s appeal to occasionalism brings to mind something larger, the difficulty in how much of a theistic philosophical metaphysics can or should be taken into non-theistic contexts. Graham for instance wants to describe the world as an occasionalist, wherein the explanatory feature of such a theory from the past is “God”. He seems to feel that all that remains is for someone to overcome the fear of blasphemy that contrained someone like Malebranche, and adopt the theory sans God, that is, sans explanans.

To my ear though, taking the explanatory feature of “God” out of occasionalist thinking (and many other Medieval to 17th century philosophical explanations) could be compared to taking the actual vertebra out of the organisms of the classification Vertebrates. It leaves something of a non-functioning organism of jelly. Impressive as a loose assemblage of visera. We see the conceptual organs all there laying in a puddle, but why can’t it lift itself or walk?

I think that as we examine and appropriate philosophies from other centuries, in particular theories that turn to a comprensive concept of God as an explanatory force, there is a danger of thinking that we can remove for ours own use all the non-theistic elements, as if they were the “real” philosophy, now stripped of their superstition. Part of this tendency (and one can see it when people talk about Descartes’ theory of Mind in a contemporary sense), comes from our experiences from science. It seems to us properly atheistic moderns that “God” was a kind of superfluous idea tacked onto real  physical explanation, something Occam’s Razor can simply shave off. Thinkers of the past were something like closet atheists, or immanent underdeveloped atheists. Aside from the distortion this brings to the history of Science itself such that we no longer understand what scientific theories meant to those that invented them, (Newton was after all a devoted Alchemist), in the conceptual jigsaw-puzzle realm of philosophy to take out the “God” part of a metaphysical explanation often does not often leave behind a functioning, coherent theory of the world. There is no residing “physical theory” lying beneath the “theistic theory” which structured the concepts organizing the metaphysics of Medieval, Renaissance and 17th century thought. One cannot simply peel away the layer of God, exposing the bones of rationality, for the concept  of God made up much of those bones.

This does not mean that one has to remain a theist in order to make use of strong influences from these centuries, but it does mean that one has to account, piece by piece, for the full explanatory function that the concept of “God” served in any such theory. One cannot simply subtract the “God” out of Augustine’s theory of a world of semiotics, nor even the “God” out of Descartes’ theory of cognition and Substance, and certainly not the “God” out of Malebranche’s occassionalism without a severe restructuring of coherent interrelations of concepts, and a restoration of the explantory power of the theory itself,  in replacement terms of its most dynamic concept. Philosophy is not science (and science is probably not even science).

Rorty and Davidson Talk

See and hear this 1997 conversation between philosophical fellow travelers Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson, posted by Gundlegung, which ends:

Davidson: “Well, it sounds to me that by your standards I am a straight-forward pragmatist.”

Rorty: “Even in the romantic sense?”

Davidson: “Even in the romantic sense.”

Rorty: “That’s nice.”

One gets the dramatic sense that these two souls are still in tension from their ethos, even though they repeatedly come to agreements in principle. There is a bodily sense in which the comfort of ideas tugs each in opposite directions. Rorty seems to work with the breadth of thinking, and Davidson with the micro-structures. Agreement seems to be what they have agreed upon.

Closely Related Post: Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet