Recent posts at Object Oriented Philosophy and Larval Subjects made me think it’s worth disentangling a number of different ways in which objects could be thought to be “real.” First would be to maintain that objects cannot be reduced to their components, either physical or sensory (that is, there really is a chair over there, not just an aggregate of atoms or sense-perceptions). Second would be maintain that these objects exist independently of human minds, knowledge or perception. Third, this could be expanded to get away from a human/object binary, and so maintain that objects are independent of other objects: that in each interaction of an object with something else, there is something in that object over and above what is involved in that interaction. Fourth, one could universalize this position, saying that, not only is an object never completely involved in any particular relation, but that objects are withdrawn from all relations, that their core being is not involved in any relations at all.
Harman, I think, believes a theory must contain all these elements to genuinely count as a realism about objects; the reason I think it’s interesting to disentangle them is that I’m not immediately grabbed by the object-oriented part of object oriented philosophy. What I find exciting in Harman is his anti-reductionism, his carnal phenomenology, and his assertion of the metaphysical importance of aesthetics; I’m trying to figure out in what ways these things depend on the reality of objects, and as part of that I’ve been wondering if they depend equally on all these four aspects of the reality of objects. In particular, I wonder about the fourth element, which seems to put Harman in the position criticized by Hegel in the quote I’ve used as the title of this post. If objects must be totally outside of all relations in order to be real, is this “realism” limited to saying merely that objects have being? I wonder how Harman would respond to Hegel here: is he doing something other than merely saying that objects have being? Would he say that it does do good to the things to say merely that they have being? Or would he reject the idea that philosophy needs to be concerned with whether it does good to the things (after all, if objects really are real, presumably they can afford to be quite indifferent to what philosophers may or may not think about them)?
Aside from this concern, I’m not sure I understand the argument for this fourth step; why does it not establish the reality of objects to say that they are never fully accessible in any given interaction? What is gained by the further step of insisting that objects are inaccessible to any possible interaction? One idea I’ve been toying with is seeing Harman’s philosophy as a particularly innovative response to Berkeley’s idealism. Berkeley argues that mind-independent reality is unimaginable, because, in anything we can imagine is, precisely because we are imagining it, dependent on our mind; this argument is interesting because everyone in the history of philosophy thinks it’s wrong, but it’s frustratingly difficult to argue against. Many have attempted to argue that in fact we can imagine a mind-independent reality; but perhaps we could see Harman as accepting the structure of Berkeley’s argument but drawing different conclusions from it. Berkeley’s premise is that any reality must be conceivable, so he concludes that, because mind-independent reality is inconceivable, there must be no mind-independent reality. But, if one starts with the premise that there is a mind-independent reality, one could equally use Berkeley’s argument to prove that, because any mind-independent reality is inconceivable, the mind-independent reality that exists must be inconceivable. Extend this argument to cover any kind of relation, not just mental representation, and, I think, you have something like Harman’s argument for the absolute withdrawal of objects.