I’m just catching up with this interesting exchange between Gary Williams (Minds and Brains), Graham Harman, and Tom Sparrow (Plastic Bodies). Williams takes issue with Harman’s and others’ portrayal of Speculative Realism as “revolutionary.” “The narrative of ‘finally’ moving beyond the ‘Kantian nightmare’”, he writes, “is tired and overplayed.” He argues that it’s not a big revelation that there is a world that’s independent of human minds. In reply, Harman and Sparrow defend the Speculative Realists’ originality and claim that Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and others did not sufficiently break with Kantian “correlationism.”


I sympathize with Williams’ position on this (and with some of the commenters to Sparrow’s post here). Anyone who studies the “natural” world, and most people in general, don’t need much convincing that there is a world autonomous from human subjectivity. It’s true that many twentieth-century philosophers have tended to ignore that point, taking an interest instead in how we know what we know, the role language plays in that, etc., and that social constructionists of various kinds have routinely rejected the idea of direct “knowledge” of that world, arguing instead that whatever knowledge we think we have of it is shaped (to one extent or another) by social processes, discourses, ideologies, cultural practices, and so on. But these are methodological and epistemological, not really ontological, moves.

Williams, in his studies, seems to draw on J. J. Gibson’s ecological psychology, alongside other forms of what we might call “sophisticated realism” — a category in which I’d include cognitive scientists like Maturana and Varela, ethologists like von Uexkull, and others. He also notes the use of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty by ecophilosophers to make exactly the same points the Speculative Realists raise. The SRs, on the other hand, are, to my mind, responding to a philosophical context dominated by precisely those philosophers and social constructionists who focus on language, discourse, and human projects (in general), so they’ve banded together to critique this hegemony and propose a new ontological realism in its place. Both positions are, therefore, understandable, and there’s no reason why reasonable dialogue couldn’t result in some mutual understanding between them.

I’m encouraged by the fact that Graham (and not for the first time) acknowledges Whitehead as “the one who did” overcome “the Kantian nightmare.” What’s interesting to me, however, is that the critiques Graham makes of Husserl and of Merleau-Ponty could also be applied to Whitehead. For instance:

Merleau-Ponty says the world looks at me just as I look at it. But that€’s the very definition of correlationism. You don’™t €œovercome Kant by saying that human and world always go together rather than being separate, you have to do it by no longer treating human and world as the two poles that are always in question. [. . .]

For Husserl there can be no independent object that is not the possible correlate of some consciousness, whereas for OOO no real object at all is the possible correlate of some consciousness, because real objects can be grasped only in translated/distorted form.

With respect to the first point, I interpret Merleau-Ponty as saying that the human-world pole is in question for the human in the same way that the dog-world pole is in question for the dog, the electron-world pole is in question for the electron, etc. In other words, the idea that “the world looks at me just as I look at it” is really an epistemological statement rather than an ontological and general one. With respect to both points, however, Whitehead also thinks of “objects” as being “correlated” to “subjects,” though since this subject-object relation is one that emerges with every actual occasion — and certainly not only with the “societies of actual occasions” called humans — this correlationism is a feature of the universe all the way down.

It seems to me that the difference between Whitehead/Husserl/Merleau-Ponty and OOO on this issue has to do with their respective definitions of an “object.” For the former it is part of a relation with a subject: for Husserl that’s a human subject, because that’s what he focused on; for M-P I don’t think it’s necessarily a human subject (especially in his late work); and for Whitehead it quite explicitly isn’t just that. For the OOOs, on the other hand, the object stands on its own, independent of any subjects, subjectivity, process of subjectivation, or whatever else. But that’s just how OOOs define “objects.” As was established in my earlier exchange with Levi Bryant, they don’t mean the word in its everyday sense, but in a philosophical sense that’s specific to the ontology they present.

As for whether SR is revolutionary or not, it’s too early to say that either way, since the revolution has not occurred. If, in twenty years, most philosophy departments are dominated by some version of (what we now call) speculative realism, then it will clearly have been a revolution.

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