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Tag Archives: Philosophy

Spinoza Stock Up, Heidegger Riding High

UPDATE: As you can see from this site that philosophy stock prognosticator professor Harman references, Spinoza’s stock DID go up in 2009! (at least against Leibniz stock, which has been experiencing a trending downturn):

The Obama bailout must be having a decided effect on Spinoza Corp, which is still chasing the legendary profits of Leibniz in 2004-5. It may be seen as simply a return to mid-decade performance, or a sign that Spinoza Corp heath has tapped into new post-crisis resources and will leave Leibniz behind. Also Heidegger has been riding high for quite a while, exempting the blimp of Derrida’s death, suggesting that Heidegger is a bit recession proof, performing well in good times and bad, perhaps something like the Shirley Temple Effect.

The/An Importance of Metaphysics

The Science Fiction of Philosophy

This conversation over at Dead Voles has been winding, snake-back, but in this bend in the road some interesting things were being discussed.

Carl gives his rendition of what he believes my position on the importance of philosophical argument, something with which I agree in part. Carl’s general sense is that philosophy (or perhaps metaphysics) isn’t really of any historical importance, both in terms of social justice, but also simply in terms of historical causation:

Carl: “If I understand correctly, Kevin agrees with this as a description of how philosophy usually works, but has a more activist commitment to the potential of philosophy to break the materialist circle and become a guide to better living. If he’s right that philosophical activism can actually have an effect on the world, and not just be an effect of the world, the stakes in philosophizing get very high, conflict is warranted (even mandatory) and withdrawal is not an option. Therefore I would expect Kevin to think that an unwillingness to fight over philosophy is in effect a cover for conservatism; so he would in principle reject the separation of affect and commitment I have made.”

Kvond: I’ve never heard my position towards philosophy summarized by another so this is interesting.

First of all I am equally, if not more passionate about art (plastic, film, poetry, fiction, etc), I just happen to blog about philosophy because this is what feeds my artistic process. And yes, to take of your thought, what we paint, film and narrate indeed expresses our historical, material, economic circumstances, but it does not ONLY do so like a dumb image floating in a mirror, it ALSO helps determine them. So everything that is at stake in philosophy is also at stake in the arts. It is only that the mode of criticism of both is different. The need for criticism of each is acute. (Part of the problem I have tried to put forth in regards to Graham Harman under the question of his Orientalism is the way in which he evades criticism of both. When criticized as philosophy, is merely being poetic, when criticized as poet, is being a philosopher, in the end taking refuge merely as a non-author.) I do also believe that the arts can be critiqued through a mode of truth, and philosophies as modes of the social, but these are not their primary traction points in the world, the force they exert.

As of the secondary question of conservatism I am not so high on this, as if buried conservatism is an inherent and ever lurking evil. I think that conservativism plays its own social role in the world, it is meant to conserve (perhaps Deleuze would say re-territorialize) aspects or relations in the face of radical change or dissonance. I am concerned about conservativism in two areas though. For one, I find the the Neoliberal (and really Fascist) elements in Levi Bryant’s Latourian objectology to be a vast case of political hypocrisy, and when someone bandies about the big rhetorical guns, blasting them this way and that, as he does, one better have one’s ps and qs straight in the positions you advocate. I find Levi’s metaphysics indeed to be Neoliberalesque, and his behavior as a person (for instance his call for uncloaking blogger identities, among many others) Fascist. When in the arena of political ideals, most important is that we don’t drag with us the very thing we are claiming to oppose. This leads to the secondary sense in which I find conservatism worth tracking. That is, because it is a social force, and has a social role, it is best if we identify it wherein it lies, so we can take it’s import into account, and look to just what it is that we are opposing. I made this point with Harman’s Orientialism as well. It is not that Orientalism is inherently “bad”, but that it contains dangers, possible negative side-effects which have a greater opportunity to manifest themselves when we are less conscious of what is going on, what is being expressed.

Perhaps this answer of mine clears up why I have bothered to tarry over Harman’s theory of causation in particular and his metaphysics in general. In the next line of our exchange I try to point out to Carl why the difference between Science Fiction and Science (by analogy) is important to philosophy’s own power to contribute to the discovery (or invention) of the world:

Carl once wrote: “…even in this ghetto philosophy has spun off useful new disciplines like Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science and so on that do much of the work philosophers used to do.”

Carl writes: “I actually agree with this ethic of getting it right and knowing where you stand, and I think it’s therefore of value to read closely and criticize when it’s warranted. I just don’t think philosophy, in particular metaphysics, is an area where there’s any useful standard of getting it right. It’s all science fiction.”

Kvond: This is the thing. I know you would like to treat philosophy as the latter, but the reason why philosophy WAS able and is STILL able to make these “spin-off” contributions to the social sciences is precisely because it recognizes the difference (within itself) between (Science Fiction) Pulp-Philosophy, and (Science) Philosophy. The internal coherence driven by the latter (and not the former) is what gave the force to descriptive systems that then power the descriptions of (some) social sciences. There is no EXTERNAL standard in the sense of a one-to-one correspondence, but indeed there is the standard of internal coherence amid systematic descriptions of the world which forces rigor within a theory that attempts to describe the world as it REALLY is. And it is this rigor that is missing from the Science Fiction aspects of philosophy.

This is one of the good things that blogs can do, just alert people to things being discussed, so that others may take the discussion in other directions or elsewhere. The arguments have the disadvantage of being rough-edged, but the advantage of being living cultures.

Graham Harman’s Bad Poetry

Harman makes a note of the criticism no doubt someone has directed towards his writing:

Another example is when people accuse a philosophical text of degenerating into “bad poetry” (this is a popular one). The people who use this phrase would be no more supportive of good poetry than of bad; they simply want to exclude all poetry from philosophical work. Yet they can’t say: “But that’s poetry!”

I have to say this certainly isn’t a criticism I have leveled at Harman’s writing, though I have been very cautious in aesthetically judging the quality of his sometimes profuse use of adjectives and sensuous illustrations. Honestly at times the verge on the edge of “bad poetry”, and Harman himself has laughed at some of the phrasing he uses in the Vicarious Causation essay. As a poet and a fiction writer I would never exclude the poetic from the expression of a philosophical discourse, but one does have to separate the argumentative claim from its rhetorical force expression, and if the rhetoric is bad poetry, overripe, indulgent, sophomoric, well…its just bad writing. But as well I believe that the metaphors one uses to convince most certainly should be both examined and critiqued, just as they would be in poetry, especially if the theory is of the opinion that metaphors mean something and are the primary ways that all objects interact (as Harman has suggested). I find Deleuze and Guattari quite poetic, and to very good effect. One is swept up in the materiality of the expression and the transformation. Foucault can be like this, and many others. What Graham likely hides in this minimization of the “bad poetry” critique is that he believes he is a better writer than most philosophy writers (he has said that he refuses to apologize for writing so well, when the question of his metaphors has been brought up). I would say that Harman’s writing rises to the level of “entertaining” but seldom breaches the realm of Poetry, and when it does, well, perhaps it is bad. Perhaps it would better to characterize it as bad sports writing.

In the same post Harman goes on a nice rant about the nature of Vampires and Grey Trolls and the usual bestiary of essentializations directed at those who critique him. In this effusion he extends his thesis that the poster named “Eli” who made a rather liquid denunciation of Harman’s philosophical skills. The comment appeared in the comments section of one of my posts, and I reproduced it here. Harman’s claims in the usual incoherent manner that this fine writer was me, as I was reeling from his recent attack on my person. Of course “Eli” is not me. If one even bothered to think about it much one would realize why. I suppose it is interesting when the people you critique start to fantasize about you, either turning you into monsters or persona of every stripe.

Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing

The blog has long since been deleted, but this trace of it remains in the discussion one of the posts inspired. Carl over at Dead Voles brought up the ethical issues associated around Harman’s insider-type advice for how philosophers should write scholarly papers: How Ideology Works, pt. 2 . For those following the recent discussion of the Capitalist-like deferral of the debt of explanation in Graham Harman’s thinking, a kind of Speculative Bubble and the tendency to commodify one’s philosophical productions, this trace makes interesting evidence. Harman is very strong on learning how to produce and “do work” very much in keeping with University as text producer needs. Philosophizing becomes a fulltime project of how to produce ideas that through their allure, and good old-fashioned elbow-grease, end up in texts and a circle of readers.

Most symptomatic of Harman’s sizzle-and-not-the-steak approach is his advice that it is always good to put an old forgotten philosopher in the “mix”:

Always good to bring an older classic thinker into the mix. My choice in this case is Giordano Bruno, who has so much in common with Grant. A critical analysis of Bruno’s Cause, Principle, and Unity would work perfectly here. Put it on the smaller bookshelf where I keep books currently in use for projects, where I will see it each day as a reminder to reread it when I have the time.

This post of Harman’s, given our past personal discussions on Scholastic philosophers and my reading of, what I have found to be his somewhat deceptive essay on causation “On Vicarious Causation”, really ended up convincing me of Harman’s disingenuous METHOD of philosophizing (despite enjoying his simplification of Heidegger as Tool-Being). The blog is now deleted along with all its helpful hints and clues on how to get ahead in the philosophy world, but at least this past discussion over at Dead Voles points us in the direction of much of Harman’s “allure” thinking about what makes good philosophy. In this his theory of causation and his methodology coincide. Personally I find this production-line thinking combined with Harman’s  “shock value” and “great idea” esteem to be antithetical to what philosophy should be about, and carries with it some substantive comparisons to Capitalist Speculative Bubble debt deferral. As such it draws our attention to the problems with the underlying theory itself, and the values that underwrite or inspire it. This is only to say that both his thinking and his methods should be shown in a more socially critical light, a light that ultimately goes to the question of cause and to the purpose of philosophy itself. Is philosophy ever anything more than “black box” making as Harman claims?

Aside from the questions this raises about a metaphysics of “allure” and the allure of rhetorical forces in philosophy paper writing, in the general sense that philosophers are in the business of selling their texts, one has to think about the “genuine” products of philosophers, what it is about the philosophical endeavor that gives it its importance, its foothold amid our more commercially vested institutions. When we write a paper, any such paper, what is it that we really would like to show? That is what matters.

As I wrote in a parallel discussion:

The answer to this is not to come up with One Great Idea, One Great Exaggeration, as Harman claims…It is to genuinely explore the past of our community discussions for the relevance that REALLY matters now, and to articulate that relevance convincingly. I do not consider this a matter of “repackaging” nor of repeating a past point, nor straining for “originality”. It is making persons of the past who answered questions quite well, answer OUR new questions, a far cry from simply bringing a classic philosopher into the mix for some paper-writing effect. It’s a question of engagement.

* More follow-up of the past discussion at Dead Voles here.

The Initial “Brilliant” Exaggeration: The Mongering of Brilliance

Counting the Coins of One’s Own Brilliance

Tom at Grundlegung has a very nice post on the weakness of reading the job of philosophers, or the act of philosophy itself as creating one bold concept: Bad Habits: The Philosopher as Concept Monger. There he talks about the sometimes unsophisticated cribnote understanding of philosophers by the imagined hook they hang their hat on:

The main ill-effect of the idea of philosophy as concept-creation which I want to point to here has been its reinforcement of one way of approaching philosophers. So, we get the philosopher-as-conceptual-toolsmith model. At its worst, we end up with synecdoche run amok, where one prominent idea comes to dominate everything else about a philosopher’s work — Wittgenstein = language games, Foucault = power-knowledge, Levinas = the Other, Badiou = the Event, etc. For example, Simon Critchley describes the post-Kantian landscape thus:

you get the Subject in Fichte, Spirit in Hegel, art in the early Schelling, and then in later nineteenth and early twentieth century German philosophy, Will to Power in Nietzsche, Praxis in Marx and Being in Heidegger. (New British philosophy: 187)

Similarly, Graham Harman claims that Heidegger only really had one idea which he endlessly repeats, namely the tool-analysis. But even without this extreme hermeneutic reductionism, there is a real coarsening which can go on when we chisel down a philosopher to a handful of headline concepts.

All of this is not to say that philosophers do not produce new concepts. Nor is a plea for endless textual analysis and scholarly ensconcement such that we never put a philosopher’s ideas to work in a new context. And neither does it display a blindness to the realities of communicating philosophical ideas in circumstances where people do not have the time or inclination to master more than the headline ideas of many thinkers. Instead, all I want to do is make the observation that emphasising the concept-creation model of philosophy too much can promote some dubious tendencies in both historiography and contemporary critical debate.

It is interesting that he brings Harman up, for perhaps he has in mind the same post I read with a notable combination of humor and horror, where Harman characterizes the project of the philosopher as coming up with an “intial brilliant exaggeration” (no doubt defending his own exaggerated but somewhat absurd notion that objects are vaccum-packed):

The problem, of course, is that just as any important philosophy makes a brilliant initial exaggeration, it also wants to claim to be describing the world as it is, and to that end the exaggeration never works. And so there is always a rush, by both author and fans, to imply that the author doesn’t really mean the exaggeration. The author is perfectly capable of balancing both sides of the problem, and so forth. But in fact, any important philosopher tends to place the emphasis on one of the two sides of the problem, and it is this initial exaggeration that is where the philosophical force lies. The other half is just a supplement added by the thinker or the thinker’s followers in order not to look crazy.

Some examples:

*Husserl does, in fact vaporize real objects in his philosophy. They aren’t there. But since this sounds solipsistic, and no one wants to defend solipsism, you can find a few minor pirouettes where Husserl tries to show that he does in fact account adequately for them.

*Every page of Badiou is as subject-oriented as possible. He has nothing at all to do with realism. Yet you can find one or two minor throwaway remarks where Badiou says “a world without a subject is possible,” and somehow Badiouians are satisfied to use these remarks as evidence that Badiou is not an idealist, even after hundreds of pages to the contrary.

*Ontological multiplicity in Spinoza is really quite feeble. Yet everyone seems to delight in claiming that Spinoza leaves as much room for individuals as Leibniz (he doesn’t).

In other words, there is a recurring counter-critical strategy in philosophy that consists in saying “only a fool would take that part literally,” when in fact the literal, initial exaggeration in any philosophy is always its greatest strength, and it must be required to pay the price for that strength.

[sorry I don’t have the citation, but I don’t visit his site much I and copied this some time ago as it just seemed bizarre. It was written in the context of what he perceived to be Shaviro’s lightening of Whitehead’s “intial exaggeration”]

The Confusions of Exaggeration

Harman surely feels that his own exaggeration, stemming from an exaggerated interpretation of Heidegger puts him in pleasant company. The importance of Harman’s separation of his own brilliance from Heidegger, and the motivations of philosophical shock value was commented on some here: Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says…. But Grundlegung tells us the obvious, if indeed we just think of philosophy the process of trading literal and simple-minded “intial brilliant exaggerations” we end up with strawmen and caricatures of some very considered thought, not to mention the possibility that philosophy can work to clarify otherwise assumed confusions:

Firstly, unsurprisingly, it often leads to trading in caricatures and straw men. Second, it tends to drive a mechanical style of philosophy, whereby the aim is to ‘apply’ the concepts of the master-philosopher to a given material rather than approach it afresh — ‘I will now give a Foucauldian/Wittgensteinian/SR analysis of x’. Third, it tends to occlude the historical dimension of much philosophy (responding to a certain set of material circumstances; intervening in a historically evolving tradition). Fourth, it can also shroud what is valuable in philosophical work, which sometimes is the purchase which a new concept provides, but is often dissolving a bogus problem, reframing a question to allow it to be answered, effecting a more diffuse change of perspective on an issue, instilling a sense of Entfremdung with respect to something we’ve taken for granted, and so on. All these dangers make me wary of overplaying the image of the philosopher as a forge for concepts.

What is significant and I think telling is that what Grundlegung groups with the dangers of this kind of Brilliance hoarding is the very thing that leads to the kind of “master” discourse thinking which people like Harman and Levi decry, the endless trains of commentary and the application of master analysis. What has been bothersome, at least in Harman’s case, and perhaps Levi’s as well, is the sense that it is not that he objects to a philosophy of masters, but rather, he would like to become a master himself. He would like to be seen as original and dictating, as he has often advised, imagine that your philosophy will be taught centuries from now. In a way, Harman sees his own philosophy as exactly the kind of Brilliant Exaggeration that composes philosophy itself – never mind that philosophical brilliance comes from problem solving, not the urge for exaggeration – and it could be that he awaits his loyal acolytes to come in his wake and discover how such a brilliant exaggeration really works. This is really non-philosophy, or philosophy as charade, playing the part of the philosopher, in my view. People who TRY to be original, are often the least efficacious in whatever it is that they come up with. And people who try to exaggerate for its own sake, are often…well, exaggerated.

I do think that concept-making is what philosophy is all about, but philosophers, at least the good ones, design their concepts in the context of seemingly entrenched conceptual difficulties, with a view of making the world more coherent and more meaningful. If they are original in their creations it is because they are expressing the needs for their age, the demand for frameworks in which to view new phenomena, new ways of relating most often brought on by technologies and sciences, or deep political change.

Dinner with Hegel…

The Unclear Dinner Guest

I ran into this wonderful vignette – perhaps it is famous – when looking into historical examples of philosophical takes on maternity, the relationship of the mother to the fetus. (I would like to write on the notion of dark vitalism soon).

After the meal had ended and the guest departed, Goethe asked his daughter: “Now how did you like that man?” “Strange,” she replied, “I cannot tell whether he is brilliant or mad. He seems to me to be an unclear thinker.” Goethe smiled ironically. “Well, well, we just ate with the most famous of modern philosophers – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.”

– Ottilie von Goethe

Aside from the possibility that there is some kind of Absolute perspicuity on the part of the young, female von Goethe [daughter-in-law?], there is also the sense that philosophers, like poets, make up their categories in order to deliver a kind of unclarity, an unclarity that transforms, but that we must muck through to get at really what they are doing.

Open Source Intellectual Expression: Vital Nodality

Watched Revolution OS(2002) on Netflix instant play last night (if you haven’t clued in, the “instant play” feature of Netflix is perhaps the best aspect of the product). The documentary on the development of the Linux/Gnu operating system with heavy interview time given to all the major players has informative parallel to bloggery-based intellectual development. To hear of the sudden profusion of a small piece of intellectual work, let us say the Open Source Definition, (and the surprise of its non-professional author), reminds me of the work I did last summer on Spinoza and Optics (apparently, and ridiculously, making me a foremost expert on the subject in the world, simply because no one else had thought to do it). I tell myself I really should read  The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, by Eric Raymond (whose essay quixotically changed the course of companies), which I have been meaning to for some time. It is not just the philosophical, practical and commercial tensions that fill this story, but, as the film shows, also that remarkable personalities come in contact and are expressed through these very specific means, nodes of transmission and transfer, the opening and closing of possibilities. Written ideas, working protocols, adhered principles, licensing documents, the joy of work all come to structured confluence. I think for those who imagine that there is a future for the intellectual process of shared ideas offered by this medium, there is much to learn from their historical example. I will say that how these people generally feel about writing and working on code is how I feel about working on (or being inspired by) philosophical problems or pursuing and posting research. And it’s always interesting to watch the imposition of “Cathedral” culture and those mental habits upon more or less spontaneous community. Most compelling perhaps is to watch the separation of the “idea” of the revolution from its commercial success -exemplified by how they had to figure out a way to change the word “free”. Not a betrayal, nor a dialectic reversal… an expressive mutation, a revolution in the genuine sense.

When thinking about intellectual gate-keeping, we are reminded of course, of JSTOR – a citadel of guarded labor born from largely not-for-profit institutions.

Finding Spinoza: The Genetics of Reading

How Larval Subjects found Him

I really enjoy when philosophy is written about like this, as a human experience with context in the world:

That aside, when I was younger, perhaps around the age of 15 or 16, I discovered Spinoza’s Ethics. I am not sure why I found myself so obsessed with this book at that time in my life. That year I read the Theologico-Politico Treatise, the Ethics, and the Treatise on the Endmendation of the Intellect. These are certainly strange texts for a 15 year old filled with raging hormones to become obsessed with. Perhaps it was that Spinoza dared to say “One” in his description of the universe. I have always gravitated towards holistic conceptions of the universe, fascinated with the interdependence or interconnection of things among one another. That same year I found myself [trying to] read Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and Leibniz’s Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics for similar reasons. Although I had standard teen fascinations with existentialism, devouring Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Nausea, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the standard works by Camus, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky, my real love was these wild and wooly metaphysicians. Spinoza, Leibniz, and Descartes motivated me to buckle down and actually learn mathematics so that I might read them.

Yet in addition to Spinoza’s beautiful holistic and process oriented metaphysics, I was, no doubt drawn to his work due to the magnificent appendix to Part I of the Ethics, and the biting and corrosive critique of religious belief in the Theologico-Politico Treatise. The time was the early 90s. I lived in a small coal mining town in Ohio (having lived all over the country). At this time the Religious Right was in full ascension- quietly growing in power and pervading the country without anyone really knowing. I was raised in a rather secular family. Although my father was raised my Southern Baptist and my mother was raised devoutly Catholic- the Bryant boys had, like all good Southern Baptists, been forbidden to date Catholics, but let’s be honest, who can resist those uniforms? -and although I was raised in the Episcopal church (they cut the difference), religion was never a real presence, as far as I can recall, in our family. Yes, I went to church on Sundays- I think -but I don’t really remember much if anything about it beyond groaning when I had to get out of bed and sneaking out of the services under the alibi of having to use the restroom so that I could explore the enticing forests around the church in New England and in Ohio; primitive feeling, primordial forests with grounds covered with ferns, muted sounds of animals, the greening of green speaking to some hidden vitality, and towering pines all about. A much better form of worship, I think.

I remember digging in the garage where all the philosophy books from my mother’s college classes were keep, on these large, metal, ratcheted, industrial shelves, where boxes of clothing and unneeded objects filled the standing space, and a small bulb burned high and incompletely to fill the room. These were text books I would rumage through to occupy my bored, slightly intrigued mind. I was maybe 10 years old, and probably had gone through some of the compilation texts, no doubt thumbing randomly after drawing them back to my bedroom, when I came upon Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was certainly in no place to understand it, but I vividly recall when I got the worn, handsized volume alone – I can still see the thread-fray at the maroonish binding – how extraordinary the first paragraphs were. They were like heiroglyphics, wherein you know that each substantive word meant something, that the entire meaning of the paragraph, the page, turned upon each word, snaking. And if you figured out what that word/term meant, the place it took, one understood just what such a paragraph, such a page, could do. That was when I came to love philosophy. When I knew it to be more condensed, more word-sure poetic than even a poem, each phrase catalevering higher.

Professors of the Left: Unite!

The discussion that arose around my last post on the discourse of the Left brought to mind something said to me in passing a few years ago.

A professor of Classics at a college which is a standard-bearer for the American Left, who had been teaching there for nearly half a century, and at least seemed to have communitarian political views, said of his many decades of watching the dining faculty there (paraphrased):

“The further to the Left the professor, the greater the likelihood that they will leave their tray behind to be cleaned up by the help”

Now this professor was not one for over-statement, though he had a love for the anecdotal (he was smiling at the irony when he said it). I could not help but feel that he was reporting a valid, sedimented and anthropological fact. Nearly fifty years of the American Left had passed through the dining hall, and year after year this man had simply watched. I believe, because he himself made it an aim of personal friendships and personal acquaintance with much of the now largely Hispanic staff at the college, it probably alarmed him, or even amused him, that so many that speak on behalf of the silenced minority in strong theoretical fashion actually had very little connection to the labor that was all around them. He had come through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s. In fact, there seemed a categorical disconnect. Their place of privilege as advocates for the exploited and abused necessarily somehow detached them from the “exploited” right beside them.

This is not to bash the Left in favor of the Right. And this is not to incrimate by association either. All have a propensity to make invisible. This is only to say given the stated theoretical views and values of the Left, “Please pick up your tray at the dining hall”, so to speak. Where do you think “revolution” begins and ends?

(Is there a conceptual connection between the brutalities exacted upon their populations by Maoist, Stalinist and Khmer Rouge party officials, and Leftist professors who tend not to clean up their plates? I don’t know. Hierarchy can be an unpredictable thing. Perhaps it can be called The Autonomy of Thought.) 

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?