Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman: The Rise of Realism

The Rise of Realism Book Cover The Rise of Realism
Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman
Paperback €19.02

Reviewed by: Mark Losoncz (Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, Belgrade / Novi Sad)

This book presents an enthusiastic dialogue between two contemporary philosophers, Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman. Neo-materialism and object-oriented ontology face each other as equally inspiring conceptual approaches to the key issues of new realism. One might have thought that DeLanda’s philosophy of dynamic relations and intensities, strongly influenced by Deleuzian concepts, can only be interpreted as a devoted rival of Harman’s philosophy which is very clear, in a partially neo-Aristotelian manner, about the priority of individual-substantial objects. But as the dialogue evolves, we have to realize that things are much more complicated.

So, what binds the interlocutors of this book together? First of all, they needed a common enemy to unite them. Indeed, the enemy has no clear outline – it embraces as different currents and thinkers as social constructivism and Alain Badiou, culturalist pseudo-Marxism and Karen Barad. According to DeLanda and Harman, they can all be brought together under the flag of anti-realism, either because of the denial of a mind-independent cosmos or because of treating human subjectivity as an ontologically outsized (co-)creator of the world. While DeLanda and Harman sometimes present realism as a heretic alternative with respect to mainstream continental trends, they also offer another perspective according to which 20th century continental philosophy can be re-read, at least partially, as a series of realist tendencies. For example, it is claimed that Deleuze is a continental realist, that Husserl’s concept of the object as an invariant form can serve as an inspiration for contemporary realism and that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has also serious realist consequences. Roughly speaking, in continental philosophy, realism is both an excommunicated pseudo-problem and the hidden message of its exciting underground. What is more, Harman does not hesitate to mention the fellow travelers: the speculative realists, Maurizio Ferraris and Markus Gabriel.

Although DeLanda and Harman are careful to emphasize their shared rejection of anti-realism throughout the book, the lines between their respective philosophies are not blurred. Already in the first chapter it is obvious that DeLanda’s neo-materialism cannot easily be reconciled with Harman’s “realism without materialism” which denounces materialism as a reductionist approach, being unable to account for immaterial entities such as fictional characters in novels. From the viewpoint of Harman’s flat ontology, “materialism has often led to premature decisions about what should and should not count as real.” (15) In contrast to this position, DeLanda proposes a material-energetic-informationism that “involves a rejection of entities that transcend the world of patterned matter-energy” (16). This immanentist model gives fiction a less mystifying status by defining it as an emergent property, or, more precisely, as a level of emergence. The first chapter of the book is valuable for several reasons. In particular, it is useful for clarifying the difference between materialism and realism, for being critical of various reductionist approaches (“undermining” / micro-reductionism and “overmining” / macro-reductionism) and for thematizing the dilemma of aprioristic and aposterioristic thinking in philosophy. Furthermore, there is an interesting debate on Aristotelian essences and forms, Harman being sympathetic to these concepts and DeLanda rejecting them on the grounds of his historical-genetic theory of singularities. The critique of Marxism is arguably the worst part of this chapter, especially when DeLanda suggests that Marxists have a “special brand in which a priori schemes of synthesis (the negation of the negation) form the core of their position” (12). It seems almost superfluous to say that this extremely abstract use of the term “Marxism” ignores the rich diversity of classical and contemporary Marxisms, with special regard to those that are highly critical of dialectical categories and the Hegelian legacy of Marx.

The second chapter relies upon Lee Braver’s 2007 book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism in order to make precise distinctions between realist and anti-realist positions. The key issues are the mind-dependence of the world, truth as correspondence, the possibility of a complete description of the world, the possibility of true and untrue statements, the relationship between knowledge and the knowable, and the claim according to which the human subject has a fixed character. DeLanda and Harman complete Braver’s list with three more problems. The first concerns the question whether the relation of the human subject with the world should be considered a privileged relation for philosophy, the second is whether subjective experience is linguistically structured and the third is about the world as a holistic entity in which everything is inextricably related. One of the most valuable aspects of this chapter is DeLanda’s and Harman’s insistence on defining the concepts of relation and relationism as precisely as possible. While Harman criticizes Whitehead, Latour and Barad for conceptualizing relations without properly taking into consideration the relata that are prior to them, DeLanda emphasizes that we should not accept “intrinsic relations that determine the very identity of what they relate”, but only extrinsic relations (32). The other aspect that deserves special mention is the interlocutors’ agreement with respect to the impossibility of a complete description of the world. According to the conclusions of object-oriented ontology, Harman claims that “things in the world cannot be converted into bundles of accurate descriptions” (44), that is to say, there is always and necessarily a withdrawal of real objects. On the other hand, by relying on insights from the philosophy of chemistry and fuzzy logic, DeLanda focuses upon the problem of emergence, i.e. of new properties that cannot be reduced to the interactions of already existing entities and that can never be exhaustively described.

The third chapter is by far the richest one. DeLanda and Harman carry on with the topic of realism, but this time by focusing more on the main statements of object-oriented ontology and neo-materialism. It is almost impossible to summarize this chapter as it ranges from the concept of possibility, through the critique of reductionisms, to the ontological status of objects. We would like to underline two important aspects: one concerns essences, and the other is about dispositions. With a strong background in Aristotelian-Zubírian ontology, Harman argues that essences are “salvageable” and that otherwise it would not be possible to interpret objects as consistent entities. Whereas DeLanda claims that the concept of essence is illegitimate and unnecessary, the interlocutors seem to make a compromise by concluding that there is haeccity (“thisness”) that makes objects identifiable. In this context, DeLanda rightly insists on the fact that, according to Deleuzian ontology, the virtual is segmented into distinct actual objects as products. There is another extremely exciting debate on dispositions, i.e. on capacities to affect and being affected. Harman refuses to put dispositions into things and comes to the conclusion that dispositions should be treated as new compound entities that result from interactions between objects. DeLanda elaborates his philosophy of tendencies and capacities in details, with a special emphasis on defining the identity of actual objects as a combination of actual properties and virtual dispositions. In short, DeLanda suggests that we should account for the enduring identity of objects “by the mechanisms of emergence behind the historical genesis and day-to-day maintenance of an object’s identity” (88).

The fourth chapter deals with the question of cognition and experience. The interlocutors seem to agree that “epistemology” is a bad term, either because it implies a dualist ontology that privileges the relation between humans and everything else, or because epistemological debates tend to ignore many kinds of “rightness of fit”, e.g. the know-how dimension of experience. Accordingly, this chapter is very critical of various scientist epistemologies (empiricism, mathematic reductionism, etc.). Harman explains his approach to cognition by stressing the point that certain essential aspects of objects are necessarily withheld or withdrawn and that our access to objects is always mediated by processes of translation. In light of this, he presents his view on the difference between real and sensual objects. DeLanda’s concept of cognition resonates with the object-oriented approach only partially: he emphasizes that “we can use the possibility of future novelty, the imperfect record of past traces, the spatial and temporal scale-dependence of the world’s presentations … to spell … out [the withdrawal of objects]” (103). Similarly to Harman, DeLanda’s theory gives importance to the mechanisms of transformation between real objects and our experiental patterns, but with more attention to the biologic origins of embodied cognition and selective attentional processes. The common ground in this  chapter is the insight that absolute knowledge is impossible, either because of the fundamental withdrawal of objects, or because of the open-ended character of nature and the untraceable aspects the past.

The last chapter articulates conceptual dilemmas with respect to time, space and philosophy of science. Harman equates “real time” with changes in space and defines sensual time as a relational entity that is derivative of the succession of objects. While he seems to accept the irreversibility of sensual time, on the other hand, he claims: “if we consider time as belonging to the real itself, then I guess I’m not a realist about time” (119). DeLanda is strongly opposed to this non-realist philosophy of sensual time and he emphasizes the irreducibility of real time, i.e. the succession of causes and effects by relying upon insights from the theory of relativity. DeLanda also offers a very useful analysis of the concept of intensity. After a longish debate on Latour, the interlocutors debate on the role of knowledge, semantics, falsification and the definition of truth. Harman summarizes the difference between their respective philosophies as follows: 1. while DeLanda privileges dynamic entities, Harman gives importance to the “inertia” of objects; 2. in contrast to the emphasis on the philosophy of science (especially on the philosophy of chemistry) in DeLanda’s philosophy, Harman’s philosophy seems closer to the arts (and for Harman “the exemplar is aesthetics”); 3. while object-oriented ontology focuses on individual-substantial entities, DeLandian neo-materialism offers a detailed conceptualization of outside factors such as phase-spaces and attractors; 4. while Harman puts emphasis on formal causes, for DeLanda it is more important to clarify the role of final causes. DeLanda completes this list with his critique of the object-oriented concept of fundamental withdrawal and Harman’s denial of real time.

Donata Schoeller, Vera Saller (Eds.): Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection

Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection Book Cover Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection
Schriftenreihe der DGAP
Donata Schoeller, Vera Saller (Eds.)
Verlag Karl Alber
Hardcover 30,00 €

Reviewed by: Étienne Pelletier (University of Montréal)

Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection, edited by Donata Schoeller and Vera Saller, is a collection of essays that reflect on the very process of reflection. The topics revolve around the activity and the experience of thinking. As such, the nine authors address questions related to language-use, the body as source of meaning, and subjective experience. They offer a broad picture of contemporary discussions and debates in phenomenology, philosophy of language, and psychotherapy.

In a way, each essay points toward theoretical constructions and attempts to define their epistemological blind spots. The phenomenological postulate stating that what is described is tightly linked to the way it is given and to the experience of the subject for whom it is given lies at the root of every contribution. The “logical, syntactical and semantic structures of propositions (11)” are insufficient to account for the complexity of thought-in-process. Furthermore, it is the contributors’ conviction that these habitual conditions of thinking leave aside the vitality of the process. This implies that we should consider the embodied processes and the preconscious dimension accompanying thinking.

Claire Petitmengin’s chapter invites us to take account the corporeal experience of the scientist at work. The author collected a series of scientists’ descriptions of their ideational processes to clarify a source of pre-reflective meaning. In so doing, she provides interesting epistemological considerations regarding the relation between lived experience and the genesis of new ideas. In this perspective, “non-rational” tasks such as walking and drawing prove to be decisive in many researchers’ methods of investigation. Albeit underexamined, this “shifting of the center of attention from the head to the body (34)” should be considered. By turning away from discursive modes of thinking, the scientist can open to a “‘felt’ dimension of experience which seems to be…the very dimension of meaning (37).” The skeptic is tempted to question the probity of a so-called felt meaning. But we should keep in mind that such questioning weakens the moment we give up rigid distinctions between body and mind.

In her chapter, Susan A. J. Stuart similarly situates bodily experience at the center of her investigation, this time in explicit relation to language. Discussing Thomas Reid’s theses on artificial language and natural language, she argues for a priority of kinaesthetic, perceptual, and especially “enkinaesthetic” (i.e., the affects we have of our neuro-muscular processes) determinants at the origin of language and considers them as “artificial.”

Eugene Gendlin also approaches an implicit dimension of cognition. He argues that this “background” is not as vague as we might suppose. From the outset, it has a certain “precision” and is decisive, for example, in the formation of concepts. The author suggests various analytic possibilities for this “thinking with the implicit.” Referring to a similar notion of “background,” the prime concern of Donata Schoeller’s chapter is the “thoughtful process of articulation.” She argues that “what is said clarifies aspects of a background that functions in the meaning of what is said (112).” In other words, she examines the cultural and biographical ‘contexts’ that come into play when we formulate and articulate any experience through language. The essay is particularly interesting for its discussion of new possibilities in the methodology of scientific inquiries. These possibilities extend to the theory and practice of psychotherapies.

Both Terrence W. Deacon and Vincent Colapietro’s chapters examine the role of language in relation to the process of thinking. The former offers a neurologically-oriented account of language as “a variation on the emergent dynamics of mental processes in general (157).” He argues that this best fits with our experience of language (i.e., not as a construction and analysis following rules). As for Colapietro, he discusses Peirce’s fallibilism and the experience of ignorance and error as constituent of self-knowledge.

Language is also central in the last chapter, that of Steven C. Hayes’. He examines the relation between knowing and its verbal-symbolic correlate. His thesis is that “human language and cognition…fundamentally alters and shapes our subjective experience and the perspective from which we view it (209).” However, despite the ostensible simplicity of this statement, the author shows clearly that this commonplace appearance arises from our failing to question the meaning of the very terms and concepts used in its formulation. The concern of Hayes’ contribution is the specific meaning of language, cognition, symbols, and perspective-taking, as well as our use of them. This is especially relevant if we are to manipulate them in theoretical investigations concerning their role in our subjective life.

Vera Saller’s contribution addresses the notion of abduction, understood as the “creativity within the framework of rational thinking (182).” Peirce argued that abduction was the “only logical operation which introduces [a] new idea (183),” and should be distinguished from hypothesis. The author also points out that Peirce compared abduction and perception (201). As to the possibility of new ideas, Saller stresses the importance of everyday thinking in their formation: “it is in the problem solving of everyday life, that new thoughts arise (186).”

Remember the story of a Buddhist monk whose disciple urgently asks him about a serious spiritual issue. The master answers with a question: “Have you finished eating?” “Yes,” answers the impatient disciple. The master then replies: “Then go wash your bowl!” In short, there is no better way of solving a preoccupying reflective problem than going about our everyday tasks hoping for the “momentary but significant flash (190),” i.e., the abductive moment. This moment of understanding is clearly not of an exclusively cognitive nature, the more so that it “comes along with a pleasant bodily emotion (202).”

But Saller’s contribution is also interesting as she compares this process with the detective metaphor in psychoanalysis. The literature examining the detective leitmotif in psychoanalysis sometimes commits a crucial error: neglecting the patient’s own work. This is often in favor of a misguided image of the analyst as the sole investigating instance in the cure. The analyst is thus constantly chasing the truth of the subject lying on the couch. Moreover, in this conception of the analyst, he or she attributes to the patient a knowledge that can only come from him/herself. The author points out this mistake and brings forth the “abductive inferences” that the method of free association is supposed to facilitate.

Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection serves multiple purposes, including theoretical inquiry (scientific and philosophical), as well as practical concerns (psychotherapy and other social practices). Combining numerous perspectives, notably phenomenology and the philosophy of language, it is relevant to a broad range of researchers and practitioners.