Tom Sparrow: On Graham Harman and Object-Oriented Ontology


Returning once again to Tom Sparrow’s book on the various new realisms abroad in the philosophical scene we discover him in chapter four introducing us to Graham Harman and his brand of Speculative Realism termed Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). Harman early own was indebted to both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and their respective approaches to phenomenology. Yet, Harman would find problems with this tradition of what he termed the “philosophy of access”. As Sparrow describes it “phenomenology is, in Harman’s eyes, metaphysically limited because it effectively holds that the totality of what exists is identical to the totality of what appears to human consciousness”.1 Sparrow reminds us that Harman’s method of “reading phenomenology for unexpected clues to the hidden lives of objects” is not without complications and attendant metaphysical puzzles.2

Sparrow touches base with those specific phenomenologists that have left their mark on Harman’s thought. He begins with the work of Husserl who out of his apprenticeship to Franz Brentano developed the phenomenology and ultimately the methodology of phenomenological description that yields ideal species, involving what Husserl would later (notably in Ideas) call the “eidetic reduction”.  Husserl developed the method of epoché or “bracketing” around 1906. It may be regarded as a radicalization of the methodological constraint, already to be found in Logical Investigations, that any phenomenological description proper is to be performed from a first person point of view, so as to ensure that the respective item is described exactly as is experienced, or intended, by the subject. This deep-structure of intentional consciousness of the subject comes to light in the course of what Husserl calls the “phenomenological reduction” (Husserliana, vol. XIII, pp. 432 ff), which uses the mentioned method of epoché in order to make coherent sense, in terms of the essential horizon-structure of consciousness, of the transcendence of objective reality. The most global form of epoché is employed when this reality in total is bracketed. There is still something left at this point, though, which must not, and cannot, be bracketed: the temporal flow of one’s “present” experience, constituted by current retentions and original impressions.

As Sparrow tells us what Husserl discovered is that intentionality does not aim at qualities; it aims at objects. Even when someone investigates an object from a series of angles that yields countless disparate profiles (even drastically disparate, as in the case of a subway system or funhouse), he always take those profiles to be perspectives on the same object.3 The point being that the subject intends a specific substantial form or object rather than – as in empiricism, a bundle of impressions or qualities. For Husserl empiricism was the enemy for which phenomenology was the solution. As Sparrow demonstrates what makes Husserl an Idealist is his acknowledgement that what intentionality aims at throughout any series of profiles is not a real object located in the physical world. Rather it is an “ideal unity” or unifying form that binds all the qualities of the object together into a substantial form that is “immanent to consciousness”; a product constituted within intentionality.4 The point is that Husserl still held onto the need for the mind/world correlation in which the object was not mind independent but was immanent to consciousness of the human observer. For Harman it is the opposite: there is no need for the human or consciousness for the simple reason that all objects, humans included are real. It has nothing to do with some form of immanence conscious or otherwise.

What Harman takes from Husserl’s intentional methodology is the notion that intentions are not just something enacted by humans. Intentionality comes to figure as the very core structure of an object.5 This is where Harman will define the object as a unit: the object is not a solid, hard thing, but a thing that has a unified reality that is not exhausted by any relation to it, so that the intention as a whole is one thing.6 For Harman intentionality has two separate functions: 1) an “adhesive function”, that brings subject and object together to form a cohesive unity capable of being analyzed as such; and, 2) a “selective function”, intentionality applies a distinctive specificity when brining a subject and object together, as well as it works to draw out objects from the background of the perceptual environment.7

Husserl gave the uncanny feeling that we could have direct access to objects, or as Sparrow tells us he “makes it seem like we live among real objects”. But Harman will show this to be an illusion and that instead what we access is not the real object but profiles of objects, in what Harman calls “a strange medium located somewhere between substances and qualities, unable to touch either of them.”8 Sparrow speaking of Harman’s project says

Harman’s entire project is by his own admission an attempt to radicalize two paradoxes of intentional existence. First, within an intentional act subject and object are fused together in a single relation while still remaining separate from each other and the other objects in their vicinity. Second, any intentional object bears within it a tension between its unified core and its sensuous surface.9

Harman would discover in Husserl’s work the notion of a split object, of a separation between the real inner core and its sensual appendages or features. Harman presents us with an eliminative realism in the sense that a sensual object’s essence is never revealed to any spectator but might be attained by “subtracting [all of its] adumbrations” through the intellectual exercise that Husserl calls “eidetic variation.”10 The difference between Harman and Husserl comes down to his belief that the reality of objects is something that is closed off from both the senses and the intuitive intellect. They are not immanent to intentionality or necessarily correlated with human consciousness, which can only cut them down to human size.11 For Harman a full-fledged realism must give an account of interobject encounters and causal interaction when no humans are around as witnesses.12

… in the next part I’ll take up Harman’s relation to Heidegger as Sparrow interprets it.

1. Sparrow, Tom (2014-06-30). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP) (Kindle Locations 2563-2564). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 2585-3586)
3. ibid. (KL 2606-2608)
4. ibid. (KL 2611-2613)
5. ibid. (KL 2629-2630)
6. ibid. (KL 2633-2634)
7. ibid. (KL 2648-2649)
8. ibid. (KL 2656-2657)
9. ibid. (KL 2665-2668)
10. ibid. (KL 2680-2682)
11. ibid. (KL 2695-2697)
12. ibid. (KL 2727-2728)