Object-Oriented Philosophy

Graham Harman

As twentieth century philosophy enters its final months, there have been fewer retrospective surveys of its past one hundred years than might have been expected. Whether this is due to widespread disorientation, or simply to the understandable wish to avoid melodrama, is anyone's guess. But at least one historical model of philosophy is being aired on a regular basis. This is the view that the great philosophical achievement of our century lies in its "linguistic turn." The philosophy of language is praised for having replaced an obsolete "philosophy of consciousness." Instead of an aloof human subject that merely observes the world while managing to keep its fingers clean, the human being now appears as a less autonomous figure, unable to escape fully from a network of linguistic significations and historical projections.

One of the usual selling-points of this model is that it is equipped to offer praise to both of the rival strands of analytic and Continental philosophy. One side can be proud of the contributions to the linguistic turn made by Frege and Davidson, the other side proud for similar reasons of Saussure and Derrida. The two churches, it is said, are closer to reunification than we think. In retrospect, then, the great philosophical mission of the century will have been to replace the theoretic model of knowledge with a hermeneutic model. All naive commitment to absolute knowledge will have ended, and with it all naive belief in a world-in-itself that might be neutrally observed. Interpretation replaces vision.

But this version of twentieth century philosophy contains a notable flaw. The ostensibly revolutionary transition from consciousness to language still leaves humans in absolute command as the primary subject matter of philosophy. All that happens is that the lucid, squeaky-clean ego of phenomenology is replaced by a more troubled figure- a drifter determined by his context, unable to fully transcend the structures of his environment. In both cases, the inanimate world is left by the wayside, treated as little better than dust or rubble. When rocks collide with wood, when fire melts glass, when cosmic rays cause protons to disintegrate, we are asked to leave all of this to the physicists alone. Philosophy has gradually renounced its claim to have anything to do with the world itself. Fixated on the perilous leap between subject and object, it tells us nothing about the chasm that separates tree from root, or that dividing ligament from bone. Forfeiting all comment on the realm of objects, it sets itself up as master of a single gap between self and world, where it holds court with a never-ending sequence of paradoxes, accusations, counter-charges, partisan gangs, excommunications, and alleged renaissances.

Meanwhile, beneath this ceaseless argument, reality is churning. Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is jam-packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them; damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of "access" to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish, and icebergs smash into coastlines.

All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further--as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology. Will philosophy remain satisfied with not addressing any of these objects by name, so as to confine itself to a "more general" discussion of the condition of the condition of the condition of possibility of ever referring to them? Will philosophy continue to lump together monkeys, tornadoes, diamonds, and oil under the single heading of that-which-lies-outside? Or is there some possibility of an object-oriented philosophy, a sort of alchemy for describing the transformations of one entity into another, for outlining the ways in which they seduce or destroy humans and non-humans alike? This paper endorses the latter option.

Best of all, there is no need to start from scratch. Against the wide consensus that the virtue of twentieth century philosophy lies in its linguistic turn, I would argue that a more important but more concealed trend of the past one hundred years lies in the halting initial steps that have been taken toward a general theory of objects, steps taken until very recently only in a sort of raw, pre-Socratic way. Since those of the relevant authors who are still alive and flourishing can speak for themselves, I will mostly confine myself here to a pair of deceased thinkers. In my view, the two most important systematic philosophers of the century now ending are Martin Heidegger and Alfred North Whitehead--one of them badly misread, the other badly underread. In the works of both, despite a serious shared mistake, there begins to reappear in philosophy a thirst for knowledge concerning the fate of specific objects. My goal today is to show why this is happening, and to sketch briefly several of the problems, both old and new, that are thereby unlocked from the heart of the things themselves.

I will begin with Heidegger, as generally the better known of the two figures mentioned. It is my contention that the key to the entire Heideggerian philosophy lies in the famous tool-analysis of Being and Time. Although this has apparently been said dozens of times already, the commentators who state it are inevitably misreading Heidegger's tool as if it were part of a pragmatism, or exemplified an early version of this philosopher's later meditation on technology. My own view, admittedly an unorthodox one, is that the tool-analysis sketches nothing less than a general object-oriented philosophy, one that is by no means free of metaphysical elements. It also seems to me that this tool-analysis still represents the high-water mark of recent philosophy. Not only has it not been surpassed--it has not even been properly exploited.

The tool-analysis itself can be summarized rather easily. Heidegger observes that the primary reality of entities is not their sheer existence as pieces of wood or metal or atoms. The wood in a primitive sword and that in a modern windmill occupy utterly different niches of reality, unleash completely different forces into the world. A bridge is not a mere conglomerate of bolts and trestles, but a total geographic force-to-reckon-with: a unitary bridge-effect. But even this unified bridge-machine is far from an absolute, obvious unit. It too has a vastly different reality depending on whether I cross it on the way to a romantic liaison, or as a prisoner underway to execution. In one case it is equipment-for-rapture, in the other a means toward damnation and misery.

Things are so intimately related to their purposes, and these to still further purposes, that in Heidegger's view it is impossible to speak in a strict sense of "an" equipment. Instead of being a solid object that enters into relation only by accident, an entity in its reality is determined by the shifting, capricious storm of references and assignments in which it is enveloped. The shift of the tiniest grain of dust on Mars alters the reality of the system of objects, however slightly. To introduce Heidegger's own terminology, entities are not primarily present-at-hand (vorhanden), but ready-to-hand (zuhanden).

When equipment is most equipment, it is concealed from view, as something silently relied upon. As I invest all of my conscious energy in reading aloud the words on this paper, I depend inconspicuously upon a vast tribe of additional objects taken for granted--whether it be the artificial light in this room, breathable air, the structural skeleton of this building, the security forces of Brunel University who prevent hooligans from entering, or even my own bodily organs. All of these objects remain loyal for the moment, performing a subterranean function with which I have no need to trouble myself, unless catastrophe strikes, and one of them fails.

For Heidegger, it is generally when equipment is lacking in some way that it emerges from its shadowy underground of pure competence and reveals its contours to view. If the city suddenly loses electrical power, if I should begin to cough uncontrollably, I am rudely reminded of entities previously taken for granted. There is an upsurge of bulky presence into my environment.

Everywhere, the world is divided into these two opposed poles: tool and broken tool, invisible action and obtrusive presence. Equipment is a Janus-head. This does not hold true only of those relatively rare cases in which objects literally "break." For Heidegger, the same reversal is found wherever objects are perceived, revealed by theoretical investigation, or simply located in a specific region of space--in each of these cases, he says, the veiled reality of equipment-in-action is torn loose from the total all-devouring system of the world, and set on display "as" what they are.

But the very term "tool" can be seriously misleading. For it has led most interpreters to suppose that Heidegger is talking about one limited kind of object among others--as if the analysis held good only of hammers, drills, keys, and windows, and not for other objects with a less utilitarian status. But in fact, equipment in Heidegger's sense is global. Beings are tool-beings. To refer to an object as a "tool-being" is not to say that it is brutally exploited as means to an end, but only that it is torn apart by the universal duel between the silent execution of an object's reality and the glistening aura of its tangible surface. In short, the tool isn't "used"; it is. What saves the bridge from being a mere pile of iron and asphalt is not the fact that people find it convenient, but the fact that any pile of anything exerts some sort of reality in the cosmos, altering the landscape of being in some distinct way. If this reality happens to be useful for people, so much the better. But natural mountain-passes and natural obstacles have no less equipmentality than an artificial tunnel. Zuhandenheit is an ontological term.

Withdrawing into its cryptic efficacy, equipment necessarily remains to a large degree a mystery, hidden from the crusading theorist and the tinkering civil engineer to an equal extent. Tool-being cannot be clarified by human praxis, which always relies upon it or is embedded in it. The key to the tool-analysis is not that it undermines the notion of solid Newtonian blocks with a people-centered analysis of plans and projections. The key is that it shows us that descriptions of the object as solid material and descriptions of it as functionally useful are derivative. More fundamental than both of these is the inscrutable empire of equipment from which all individual beings emerge. This empire is loaded with surprises.

There has been a certain amount of speculation about whether the history of philosophy has a cyclical character, such that recent philosophy would mark a repetition of the full sequence of ideas found in ancient philosophy. Whether this claim can be sustained or not, there is sufficient reason to compare Heidegger to Parmenides, with his famous invocation that "being is, and non-being is not." Like the early Greek whom he so admires, Heidegger too seems locked into repeating an awesomely simple dualism without being able to develop it more concretely: namely, the difference between the executant reality of an object and its encountered surface. Given more time, it could easily be shown that on every concrete topic, Heidegger has nothing more to offer us than the famous ambiguous drama of concealing and revealing. Heidegger is the modern Parmenides.

To be at least somewhat specific, it could be shown that his celebrated theory of time has nothing to do with time at all. This word is simply one of his many literary figures for naming the single repetitive duality found throughout his works. All that emerges from his "temporal" analysis of a hammer is that the hammer must be regarded both as the execution of a real effect (a.k.a. "past") and as a discrete reality determined by its significance for a human involved in a specific projection of the world (a.k.a. "future"). The ambiguous co-existence of these two moments gives us Heidegger's "present". Voilą! There you have it, the supposed Heideggerian theory of time, which would hold good even if a sorcerer were able to hold time forever in its tracks.

The same monotonous analysis occurs when Heidegger claims to be telling us about technology, human moods, artworks, animal organisms... indeed, any place in his 56 volumes of 17,000 pages (published so far) where he claims to be giving a concrete analysis of anything. This is not widely recognized (I have argued it at length elsewhere), but it is one of the main sources of the unpleasant aftertaste familiar to anyone who has ever read Heidegger for several consecutive hours.

To return to the main theme, there is a ubiquitous opposition in Heidegger's thought between two modes of being--those known as "ready-to-hand" and "present-at-hand." The easy move would be to read this opposition in a traditional way, as if the first belonged to the sphere of the "object," the second to that of the "subject." The tool would seem equivalent to the brute force of inanimate causation, the "broken" tool to human perception, to the human capacity to transcend the immediate environment, stepping beyond and reflecting critically on the environment "as" what it is.

But we must rid ourselves of this framework immediately by making several remarks that would cause Heidegger himself to become either furious or coldly dismissive. Here is one such remark: the dualism between tool and broken tool actually has no need of human beings, and would hold perfectly well of a world filled with inanimate entities alone. Let's say that a person is confronted with the proverbial pair of billiard balls. We have already seen that for Heidegger, these balls are not reducible to that which the player encounters of them. Withdrawn into the performance of their deepest reality, they can only be partly objectified or unveiled by an observer.

This is fine. The problem lies in assuming that the two balls in collision to do not also objectify each other, as if humans faced a world of still-unperceived depths but inanimate objects exhausted one another's reality upon the slightest contact. Ball Number One may be shiny and hot to the touch. Ball Number Two will of course be utterly insensitive to these properties. And yet the shininess is somehow present for the beam of light that skids off the surface of the shiny ball and is deflected off into the galaxy. And the heat of the ball is overwhelming for the loose speck of ice that dissolves instantly upon touching it. In other words, even inanimate objects are caught up in something like a "hermeneutic circle." No object ever sucks all of the juice out of another object.

Is there any difference, then, between human perception and sheer brutal physical causation? Of course. But Heidegger's ontology is not the place to find it. His recurrent duality between real thing and its encounteredness by other things turns out to be far more encompassing than he would like it to be, given his untenable belief that he is beginning with an account of human Dasein alone.

So much for Heidegger. Since the time allotted for this paper is running out, it is unavoidable that Whitehead will receive only cursory treatment. But by way of compensation, it may be noted that the foregoing interpretation of Heidegger is largely a Whiteheadian interpretation. Whereas Heidegger does intend to confine his tool-analysis to the sphere of human existence and its perils, whereas I have had to do violence to Heidegger's intentions in order to apply it to objects in general, Whitehead openly embraces inanimate reality. As the latest advocate of a monadic theory of the cosmos, he is never shy about utilizing words such as "thought" or "feeling" to refer to the inner life of a stick or a piece of hair.

Otherwise, the same dualism found in Heidegger is present in Whitehead as well. Where Heidegger says Zuhandenes or tool-being, Whitehead speaks of "actual entity." Where Heidegger refers to Vorhandenes as the way in which the things are objectified, Whitehead makes use of his "eternal object," simply a more Platonized version of the same concept. There are enough subtle differences between the two pairs of terms that someone might object to any direct identification of them. Given lack of time to argue the point, I will merely assert it, while citing as peripheral evidence an even more powerful connection between these two seldom-linked ontologists. I refer to their obvious tendency always to grant philosophical primacy to the network of entities rather than to isolated individuals. When Heidegger insists that there is no such thing as "an" equipment in the end, it is inevitable that we hear echoes of Whitehead's doctrine of the single concrescence in terms of which all actual entities are thoroughly defined. In both cases, nothing about the object is held in reserve from the full system of objects. In each moment, every entity is exhaustively deployed. The result of this doctrine, or perhaps the cause of it, is the near-paranoia of both Whitehead and Heidegger concerning the possibility of any enduring classical substances. The solemn Heidegger degrades the notion of durable materialism while the more good-natured Whitehead sneers just as visibly over any idea of substances capable of "undergoing adventures in time and space." For each of these figures, the tiniest incident or most whimsical human action has the surprising power to change the entire universe; the pettiest event obviously alters the total relational system that embraces all objects. Note Whitehead's dismissive attitude, rare among the religious, of even the question concerning the immortality of the soul. Why worry about this, after all, when the soul does not even endure, in a strict sense, from one moment to the next? Despite his claim to strike a temperate balance between individuals and the whole, there is an extremely weak sense of the individual in his work. The object becomes merely a slang term for some region of the total concrescence. It is deprived of anything that would not be expressed in the world-system hic et nunc, stripped of all armor, all firewalls, all privacy. In short, it is vaporized into an infinitely interconnected empire.

A specter haunts this twentieth century doctrine- the specter of classical theories of substance. For Aristotle as for Leibniz, it is possible at least in principle to sift through the world so as to divide the substances from the non-substances. The title 'substantia' is a reward handed out to certain entities, but denied to many more. This occurs in its most entertaining form in Leibniz's sometimes vitriolic correspondence with Arnauld. Leibniz asks us to imagine two diamonds: one belonging to the Grand Duke, the other to the Great Moghul. We can speak of them as a pair, but this pair is nothing more than "a thing of reason." Bringing the two diamonds closer together will not convert them into a single substance, not even if they were glued together. For if two diamonds glued together were a substance, Leibniz says, then a flock of birds would be a substance, and a circle of men holding hands would be a substance. He apparently considers this observation to a proof by reductio ad absurdum. But we need only recall that for Heidegger and Whitehead, a circle of men holding hands would be every bit as real a unity as the hardest diamond or the purest soul. For them, temporal endurance is never a valid criterion.

It is in their shared tendency to reduce the world to nothing but a shifting system of relations that the shared mistake of both of these twentieth-century thinkers must be located. A brief thought-experiment will show some of the difficulties entailed by their position. Let's say that a chunk of plutonium is abandoned in the desert, compressing the sand on which it sits, deflecting sunlight into distant space, with no living creature anywhere in the vicinity. This unearthly metal is ready-to-hand in the broadest Heideggerian sense- it is not just a pile of atoms that happens to have uses afterwards, but is primarily a specific agent that accomplishes certain deeds in the world while not accomplishing numerous others. But while the sand and dead weeds now surrounding the plutonium fail to sound the depths of its lethal radioactive quality, any living creatures that might be present would be killed in minutes. In short, there is an additional reality in this strange artificial material that is in no way exhausted by the unions and associations in which it currently happens to be entangled. This reality is unexpressed, and will always remain so.

The easy way out of this predicament, the usual way out, and the wrong way out, is to appeal to "potentiality" to explain the status of the radioactivity prior to the arrival of any animals. It will be said that the plutonium is not "actually" lethal, but potentially so given the right circumstances. What is weak about this approach -and given its illustrious classical pedigree, I realize that I will appear to be on thin ice- is that the theme of "potential" allows us a sneaky way to evade the difficult question of what the actuality of the lethal quality is. To speak of a quality in terms of its potential is already to speak of it from the outside, to objectify it rather than to clarify its ontological status. What is the actuality of the "lethal" here? Or in other words, just what is it that is "potentially" lethal in this case? Atoms? Or something far stranger than this?

1. Obviously, it cannot be the metal in its current state of relations that is potentially deadly, i.e., in its relations with sand and light and dead weeds. For by definition, this system of relations is no longer itself once we add new elements to it. To use Whitehead's terms, "plutonium and sunlight" is not the same concrescence as "plutonium and sunlight and dying cat."

2. The common-sense belief would be that the actuality here is the physical mass of plutonium atoms, an enduring substrate able to support many potential relations. But if we are even remotely sympathetic to the Heidegger/Whitehead breakthrough, this is untenable. The primary reality is not plutonium-thing and sand-thing and cat-thing, but rather the total system in which each of these is defined in its reality by the others. The two positions conflict with one another. The actuality of the plutonium can be found neither in the current total state of the world, nor in an isolated lump of enduring trans-uranian substance. The object known as plutonium is neither material nor relational, which means that it has to be both immaterial and substantial--in a sense yet to be determined.

Copyright 2001, Graham Harman
American University in Cairo
Egypt 

[Note: This paper was originally read at a conference at Brunel University, UK on September 11, 1999. The argument is made in book-length form in my forthcoming Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court, 2001.]


Created 2001/10/15
Pete