Graham Harman: A Theory of Everything

“To think is to confine yourself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the world’s sky.”

― Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger believed it was necessary to think one thought and one thought only, and to think it through to the end. Having just read Graham Harman’s latest fare Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything I’m reminded Heidegger’s dictum. After a foray into modern physics and its reputed search for a theory of everything, which during the late 80’s and 90’s became a sort of popular fad among layman and scientists alike, with String Theory becoming the obvious front runner for many theoretical and mathematically inclined participants because of its elegance. In the end nothing much came of it other than more mathematical conundrums and endless debates. The sceptics and such scientists as Lee Smolin would see in this utter acceptance of String Theory as the end-all be-all theory that would someday provide such an objective truth-bearing report as utter non-sense, and that putting all one eggs in one basket and filling the minds of graduate students with a baseless non-experimentalism gone awry would in the end produce a form of end game for the sciences.

Harman for his part will attack any such Theory-of-Everything as baseless from another angle, philosophy. For Harman – using a fictitious scientist named Browne – there are four false assumptions to be addressed. Taking his que from Brian Green a popularizer and commentator of the various trends in String Theory who tells us that ‘if you … believe that we should not rest until we have a theory whose range of applicability is limitless, string theory is the only game in town,’1 Harman relates the false assumptions as follows, and then addresses them:

  1. everything that exists must be physical
  2. everything that exists must be basic and simple
  3. everything that exists must be real
  4. everything that exists must be able to be stated accurately in literal propositional language

Harman will of course dispute each of these assumptions and ultimately remind us that the four major pitfalls faced by such a theory are: physicalism, smallism, anti-fictionalism and literalism.2 The he’ll go on to relate that OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology)  rigorously avoids these intellectual toxins. As he relates it for the “object-oriented thinker, physical objects are just one kind of object among many others, and hence we should not be in a hurry to scorn or ‘eliminate’ those that are not a good fit with a hardnosed materialist worldview” (p. 39). Harman’s notion of materialism here should be differentiated from that of such philosophers as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek’s dialectical materialism. Harman is singling out scientific materialism rather than these other strains. As Harman puts it (and I quote in length):

Philosophy is not the handmaid of materialism any more than of religion. Against smallism, object-oriented thought holds that objects exist at numerous different scales, including the electron, the molecule, the Dutch East India Company and the galaxy. The mere fact of complexity and largeness does not make something less real than its component parts. Next, we should be in no hurry to flush fictional objects out of existence, since any philosophy worthy of the name must be able to say something positive about such beings. And remember that by ‘fictional’ I do not just mean the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Emma Woodhouse, but also the everyday houses and hammers that we seem to encounter directly, but which we perceive in the manner of simplified models of the real houses and hammers to which we can never gain direct access. And finally, OOO is anti-literalist, because any literal description, literal perception, or literal causal interaction with the thing does not give us that thing directly, but only a translation of it. Hence, an indirect or oblique means of access to reality is in some ways a wiser mode of access than any amount of literal information about it. (p. 40)

So that for OOO a notion of scales, indirect access, and anti-literalism are earmarks of philosophical stance. As part of this stance Harman relates three  notions he uses to defend his position from certain other forms of philosophical speculation: Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining. As Harman emphasized in his work on Dante the underminer is a thinker who eliminates objects by telling us what they are made of; the overminer gets rid of them by telling us how they appear or what they do; the duominer does both at once.

What all three of these miners miss is the real object that remains what it is despite all of the intellectual methods that aim at abolishing it. It is my contention that this anti-mining current in philosophy goes back not just to the substantial forms of the Middle Ages, but as far back as the Socratic disclaimer that only a god can have knowledge, and that human aspiration should aim instead at a love of the real.4

Another objection to Harman’s use of Objects came from the materialist realist Manuel Delanda who did not understand why Harman ‘wants to stick to objects’ while ignoring events. Harman for his part saw no conflict seeing an event as just one more object among many, saying that the only criterion for OOO is that “an object is more than its pieces and less than its effects” (p. 53).

If one has read Harman’s previous works we discover that in his first book Tool-Being the central thesis was that objects exist in utter isolation from all others, packed into secluded private vacuums. But that this was only half the story, and that in his second work Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things he would show how utterly isolated or withdrawn objects ever make contact with others, or how relations and events are possible despite the existence of vacuum-sealed objects or tool-beings. To do this he introduced the notion of vicarious causation derived from a combination of the Occasionalism philosophy of Nicolas Malebranche and his Arab pre-cursors on through Leibniz and others. As he related it there any “philosophy that makes an absolute distinction between substances and relations will inevitably become a theory of vicarious causation, since there will be no way for the substances to interact directly with one another”.4

Without going into the details of Real Objects vs. Sensual Objects etc. the notion of vicarious causation has a simplicity to it that one could mistake and overlook:

according to this theory, two real objects in the world make contact not through direct impact, but only by way of the fictional images they present to each other. One real rock strikes the sensual version of another, in such a way that there are retroactive effects on the real. This is what OOO calls vicarious causation. (p. 165)

This notion that two rocks come into contact with each other by indirectly presenting ‘fictional images’ to one another may sound absurd and trite to the average layman but the key is in this notion of retroactive effects on the real. If anything Harman is a philosopher of the real rather than knowledge. Following Socrates example Harman disputes that philosophy every gains knowledge, instead it is a pursuit of the love of wisdom rather than its attainment that matters to Harman as to Socrates. Knowledge for Harman will always be incomplete as is our universe, because there is no One, no external stable object that can literally every be put into some linguistic or mathematical formula. Why? Because the universe is processual and incomplete, an ongoing object and force whose relations are not all connected but in movement and withdrawn into subterranean processes that can never be lifted into a completed totality.  There being no totality, no ground, no Outside.

Against the religious occasionalism of the line streaming from Malebranche through the idealists Harman will discover in Bruno Latour a new twist in presenting a secular occasionalism in which real and sensual objects interact – or in the case of mind/body dualism etc. – through a vanishing mediator. This process of composition and decomposition between objects takes place in a new object formed for the duration of the interaction between the two objects. It’s this temporary vicarious relation or “compositional sense of causation is the primary one, since it holds that any relation between separate things produces a new composite object” (p. 168).

I don’t have time to go over every aspect of Harman’s book in this post, and would ruin the reader’s experience of delving into it whether one agrees or disagrees. The book is more of a summary and redefining of Harman’s previous work. As he will relate it himself:

As is always the case in an ancient discipline like philosophy, not all of the ideas of OOO are new, though they are deployed in new combinations and applied to subjects philosophers have often neglected. Some of the basic principles of OOO, to be visited in detail in the coming chapters, are as follows: (1) All objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non-human, natural, cultural, real or fictional. (2) Objects are not identical with their properties, but have a tense relationship with those properties, and this very tension is responsible for all of the change that occurs in the world. (3) Objects come in just two kinds: real objects exist whether or not they currently affect anything else, while sensual objects exist only in relation to some real object. (4) Real objects cannot relate to one another directly, but only indirectly, by means of a sensual object. (5) The properties of objects also come in just two kinds: again, real and sensual. (6) These two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities lead to four basic permutations, which OOO treats as the root of time and space, as well as two closely related terms known as essence and eidos. (7) Finally, OOO holds that philosophy generally has a closer relationship with aesthetics than with mathematics or natural science. (p. 9)

For me philosophers mis-read or mis-prision each other to present new and innovative readings of  past philosophy and form new concepts, ideas, and in Harman’s case tropes and metaphors. There is no correct philosophy or correct reading of philosophy only more interesting interpolations and the emergence of new forms, the pursuit of wisdom being endless and the purveyors of such thought endlessly challenging themselves and others to think about life and experience. It’s all in the stance a philosopher takes up within the history of this ongoing debate about the real that is most interesting in each and every thinker, philosopher, scientist, literary worker etc. that concerns me. It will never end, and the debates between literalist and anti-literalist stances will probably go on forever unless the Law or Police of culture step in and outlaw it. Till then we have as many philosophies as we do humans to take up the task. Harman’s is always of interest for its clarity, precision, and acumen. He knows his history, he knows his enemies, and he has that humor and magnanimity that one needs to survive the onslaught of attacks in such an age of dispute as ours.

  1. Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (p. 21). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid., p. 39.
  3. Harman, Graham. Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (p. 277). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  4. Harman, Graham. Dante’s Broken Hammer (Kindle Locations 2269-2273). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.
  5. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 2). Open Court. Kindle Edition.


4 thoughts on “Graham Harman: A Theory of Everything

  1. interesting is one way to judge/appreciate, useful/ness could be another and I don’t see how this aesthetic approach has any direct applications or even how one might test its assertions, I guess we could treat it as being akin to contemporary art?

    Liked by 1 person

    • yea, he’s closer to the Sophists and Rhetoricians of old… closer the old style literary critics of bygone times. He favors metaphor over concept, so that that should tell you all you need to know. And, yes, it is the artists and aesthetic aspects that many hook into with Harman. He’s easy to read, has a clarity and an ability to lead you on the road to his view of things. Unlike the Zizek who is all over the place and needs an editor, Harman is a great writer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The war between sciences and philosophy turns on the mill of bliss and ignorance as always… both defend fictions that support experiential or fantastic proofs. On the one side scientists say: “Look here, science works, it produces results: the atom bomb, etc.. While you, the philosopher, what have you ever produced.” The Philosopher answers: the concepts and tropes you use to enact such mathematical inclinations, that’s what. Your very science is based on the presuppositions of philosophical frames of reference. Without philosophy there would be no science. Even naturalism is a form of philosophical speculation, etc.”

        So the wheel turns ever on…. no winners in this debate, only an endless squabble among ghosts…

        Liked by 1 person

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