Against Experience

I haven’t posted anything in a while, as I’ve been in a mad dash with thesis work. Unfortunately, it looks like its not going to let up soon, but I’ll try to make sure I get the odd post in. As a side note for anyone in the UK, watch this space, as I should be announcing a couple interesting events planned at Warwick during 2010 soon. However, I won’t give any specifics until the details are all ironed out.

Getting back to the philosophy, I thought I’d add a little bit to the somewhat turbulent discussion that’s been going on about Graham Harman’s philosophy over the last few days. I have plenty of reservations about his work, insofar as I understand it, but I feel a bit hesitant to launch into anything like a grand critique, given that I haven’t read as much of his work as I’d like to (although Heidegger Explained should be being sent to me soon). Most of this discussion (at least most of the substantive philosophical discussion) has focused on his theory of vicarious causation. I don’t want to talk about this, but rather about something he said (here) in response to Michael Austin’s attempt to clarify his position (here).

The major feature of his philosophy that Harman has been touting recently is what he calls his fourfold, which consists of a distinction between real object and sensual objects on the one hand, and a distinction between real qualities and sensual qualities on the other. The intersection of these distinctions apparently produces 10 categories, describing the ten possible pairings or relationships that can emerge between these four terms. Now, I can’t comment on this categorical schema, because as of yet we’ve only been given some hints about how it works out, but it does sound very intriguing and I’ll be interested to see what comes of it.

However, what concerns me is the way Harman defends the fourfold schema in his response to Austin. In essence, Austin collapsed the two distinctions into one, by presenting Harman’s approach in terms of the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accidents. In response to this Harman emphasized the importance of distinguishing both between the real and the sensual, and distinguishing between objects and their qualities. He justifies the necessity of this in the following way:-

Some people still shout a lot about how useless or meaningless the fourfold structure is, but we’re also making progress on that front. People are paying attention to it. And in most of my lectures and essays in 2009, I’ve made the point that if you don’t accept the fourfold structure, it’s because either:

(a) you reject the difference between human experience and the real beyond it: you’re a correlationist at heart

(b) you reject the distinction between objects and bundles of qualities: you’re an empiricist at heart

My reading of the two separate axes in Heidegger claims that both (a) and (b) are bad positions, and are even worse when combined.

So, Harman tries to back us into a corner, by showing that we have a list of mutually exclusive options: you can adopt correlationism, empiricism, correlationist empiricism, or you can adopt object-oriented philosophy. I quite like this form of argument as it makes our options very clear. However, it also gives us the opportunity to reveal hidden premises upon which the set of options is established. If we can identify and reject such a premise then we can get out of the bind Harman puts us in. Looking at the options presented above, I think we can identify such a hidden premise: that ontology must start with experience.

Its entirely understandable that Harman would assume this. He is, after all, a phenomenologist (albeit a very heterodox phenomenologist). However, it seems to me that its possible to reject this assumption, and thus that it’s possible to reject Harman’s fourfold structure without thereby falling into either empiricism or correlationism. For instance, it seems that we can allow for the possibility of an in-itself that does not collapse back into an in-itself-for-us (contra correlationism) without having to conceive this by contrast with the experiential or sensual. This means understanding the for-us in non-phenomenological terms (perhaps in discursive terms). Moreover, if our understanding of reality is not indexed to some notion of experience, then we need not think of the real properties of entities in terms of any model of experiential qualities, be it an empiricist model or the Husserlian model Harman advocates. It might be that a proper analysis of the discursive structure of predication is a better way of getting a handle on the nature of properties, rather than a phenomenological analysis of quality. At least, this is the path I’m heading down.

I’d like to say more about this, but this was meant to be a brief thought. At some point I really need to articulate why exactly phenomenology is inadequate, and how my alternative methodology (fundamental deontology) is superior. For now, I think it’s enough to say that whether phenomenology (be it in its classical or heterodox form) is the proper method of ontology (or even philosophy as such) is far from a settled matter.

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

15 thoughts on “Against Experience”

  1. Interestingly, this reminded me of something Brandom mentioned in a talk he gave at the recent Rorty conference (The IoP one in London); he said that ‘experience’ was a word he hadn’t mentioned once in Making It Explicit, and that generally he tried to make all the points he wanted to without having to appeal to it. Don’t want to suggest that Bran. is involved in the same kind of enterprise as Harman, but thought it was interesting.

  2. It’s exactly the opposite. Brandom is engaged in something totally different from Harman, insofar as his approach gives priority to the discursive over the experiential. Of course, Brandom is totally uninterested in anything like ontology as most of us conceive it (he has quite a revisionary understanding of what metaphysics is), but he does provide us with the bear bones of an alternative to phenomenology. In effect, Brandom, following Sellars, gives us a way of getting out of the problems of givenness, by showing how anything like an experiential content can only be understood in terms of inferential discursive practices, rather than vice versa. What I’m trying to do is to develop their insights into a more rigorous methodology that can supplant phenomenology.

  3. Hmm, interesting post. I like the way you set up Harman’s fourfold in terms of its absences. The other absence is one of process/temporality. Harman could incroporate this by literally making the fourfold cartesian-graph diagram into a 3d graph. Objects and qualities ‘already-are’ in Harman’s philosophy. Massumi already presented a counter-position to this in parables of the virtual.

    If Harman understood Whitehead better, then he wouldn’t present such a static realism. Actual occasions are born of perhensions prehending each other and ending in a ‘satisfaction’. I can’t get no satisfaction from Harman’s fourfold.

  4. DE, I like your simplified approach quite a bit, as it goes right to the core of Harman’s assumptions, (and I wouldn’t consider it very far from a Spinizist solution either). The thing is Harman MUST start with experience (or from “human examples” as he puts it) because his entire stake is upon the centrality of Husserl (and his implicit Cartesianism) for the non-human projection of Heideggerian Dasein. That he founds this non-human extrapolation of Heidegger upon a Cartesian Husserl, is one of the more problematic, if incomprensible aspects of his thinking. In short, given his theory of vicarious causation (which you avoid, probably wisely), every dust ball and grime smudge must contain within itself an experiential representation (what Harman calls a “vicar”) of external objects that effect it, for their to be any causation at all.

  5. I just wanted to mention the ‘Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations’ (UTP 06) which does present a kind of weird Aristotle by way of John Poinsot (aka John of St Thomas).

    This undercuts the Aristoteliean schema with 2 kinds of being:
    1. relative beings (which are not relations)
    2. the relations those beings are involved in

    I am still reading and digesting the available material on vicarious causation. I would be interested in a clarification on whether existentialities require a vicar to know themselves (a mediation/mediator)…
    Also I am unclear as to what counts as ‘autonomous objects’ Is a sand dune autonomous? Leibniz and many others would say no – it’s an aggregate that borrows its identity from an observer.

    “Ontological (adj.): concerned with the study of the diverse ontic conditions (ontology). In the particular case in which the study is about the observer’s own mind, her ontic makeup or consistency is directly apprehended gnoseologically, so her onticity is also and directly ontological. Any other realities (including the foreign minds and the unmindful realities at the hylozoic hiatus) are indirectly apprehended by her: represented (partially, in their transformations and not in their causal constitution) through knowledges or modifications in the mentioned ontological consistency of their observer.”(Mariela Szirko)

    Thus no further causal action is required to know one’s onticity….

    ‘Noûs poieetikós (Greek for “productive intellect”): mind’s acquired component (articulated collection of mental contents) that produces the proper notion about sensory notices, after these notices arrived by sensory channels. For example, when sewing a button or leading an army to battle one sees the thread and button positions – or the field positions – by sensory means, and the noûs poieetikós turns these attended sensory contents into interpreted, meaningful perceptions; but the sort of knot one is doing and one’s army’s strategy are “seen” only by means of the noûs poieetikós. The noûs poieetikós was carefully studied throughout the history of Western and Oriental psychology except in Modernity’s Empiricism (which, essaying in this way to counter the Scholastic notion of soul, promoted Plato’s view of memories as bodily-impressed data, claimed to be the mind’s unique acquired contents). Currently the noûs poieetikós is best described in Piaget’s terms, as the internally consistent system of the operations that one can do with every sensorily detected encounter through the means at one’s reach, thus “categorizing” these encounters.’ (Szirko)
    I quote from this relatively unknown work as it is relevant to an ‘realism’ and they know more than I do!. Essays by Crocco and Szirko can be found on the web – partic Palindrome and Effects of relativistic motion on the brain..

  6. In classical terms, we must speculate once more on
    causation while forbidding its reduction to efficient
    causation.” (Harman).

    Forgot to mention this. Why this prohibition on efficient causation – and the emphasis on ‘vicarious causation’ ‘which science know nothing.’? Of course, I’m not expecting an answer! Because they are not in direct contact…….T

    ‘Then features of every causal action in nature are explained, and how these features of causality organized the entire natural world, in particular the generation and use of sensations in nature. Then it is shown that this scenario is incompatible with both identity theory, namely thinking that minds are essentially identical to the realities which evolve independently of the observer’s mind, and also with declaring these outer realites unknowable. ‘(Mario Crocco).

  7. To stay with ‘sand-dunes’. ‘Science’ is ok with ‘wind’ (variations in atmos pressure – high to low) forming ‘mounds’ of sand particles. Why an intermediary. Why can’t efficient causality or Peirces’ dyadic interaction/brute secondness do the job. And where does the sand-dune end and another one begin….

    1. I was curious about this in regards to Harman’s objects and vicars. When a piece of dust lands on golf-ball, is there a golf-ball-piece-of-dust object? Are my hairs part of my “object”? Where does one object end and another begin? The dune problem is a species of this.

  8. Ok, I will stop now.
    “My dearest Lady Welby,
    Generally speaking genuine secondness consists in one thing acting upon another, —brute action. I say brute, because so far as the idea of any law or reason comes in, Thirdness comes in. When a stone falls to the ground, the law of gravitation does not act to make it fall. The law of gravitation is the judge upon the bench who may pronounce the law till doomsday, but unless the strong arm of the law, the brutal sheriff, gives effect to the law, it amounts to nothing. True, the judge can create a sheriff if need be; but he must have one. The stone’s actually falling is purely the affair of the stone and the earth at the time.” C.S.Peirce

    ‘Sensuous’ vicars and brutal sheriffs – the mind boggles.

    But the stone’s falling is an affair of the earth and the stone – not a vicarious intermediary?????????????????????????????????

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