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.

Current Debates in Phenomenology & Overcoming the Continental-Analytic Divide (Held March 31-April 1, 2017, at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, USA)

Michael Gutierrez

On March 31-April 1, 2017, Marquette University (USA) hosted faculty and graduate students in attendance for the conference “Current Debates In Phenomenology & Overcoming the Continental-Analytic Divide.” The two-day event examined the philosophical inheritance of the Divide and how it impacts work in phenomenology today. Sebastian Luft (Marquette University), and graduate students Jered Janes (MU), Clark Wolf (MU), and Ben Martin (LUC), served as lead organizers. The spring conference grew out of the ongoing inter-university series of seminars and workshops jointly organized by phenomenology research groups at Marquette University and Loyola University Chicago. The event was made possible by through the generous support of The American Friends of Humboldt, the philosophy department of Marquette University, and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).

The conference included three faculty keynote lectures, six papers presented by graduate students from Marquette University and Loyola University Chicago, and a concluding panel discussion. Papers and lectured varied in their approaches to the main theme of the conference; some addressed the Continental-Analytic Divide directly, while others attempted to occupy a space for philosophical thought beyond the presuppositions of the Divide. James Dodd (The New School) delivered the first keynote lecture, titled “The Promise of an Asubjective Phenomenology.” The lecture offered a close and careful engagement with the thought of Jan Patočka. What philosophical resources does the Czech thinker provide to develop an asubjective phenomenology? Dodd argued that an asubjective phenomenology is not a non-subjective phenomenology. The classical influence of Husserlian phenomenological subjectivity endures in Patočka’s thinking, but is reoriented around the dichotomy of “inwardness/periphery” rather than “subject/object.” Such reorientation invites a rethinking of topics within phenomenology, including embodiment, the role of literature for phenomenology, the constitution of self and others, and the purported self-transparency of consciousness. Dodd tied together the several strands of Patočka’s rethinking into a Patočkian proposal for a revision of Husserl’s principle of all principles and a counterproposal for a “non-objectival” form of clarity available in reflection.

 The second keynote lecture, titled “Realism and the Ontological Question,” was delivered by Paul Livingston (University of New Mexico). Livingston took up a selection of arguments from his book The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time (2017). His primary aim in the lecture was to treat ontological questions, drawn from Heideggerian discourse, in a manner compatible with a realist ontology. Livingston took up a Lacanian meditation on formalization, and its limits, as the basis for proposing a kind of meta-formal realism. Livingston’s meta-formalism proposed a realist stance premised on “the experience of formalization whereby it problematically captures and decomposes its own limits.” He distinguished meta-formal realism from empirical realism, metaphysical realism, and correspondence realism. On the contrary, he argued, the meta-formal realist position treats questions about the basic sense and meaning of our formalization of the real, rather than dealing with entities, or domains of entities. Livingston situated his discussion with a historical reflection on different orientations of realist thought. The concepts of coherence and consistency came to the fore as disjunctive indicators of post-Cantorian orientations of realism. Either the orientation is complete without being consistent, the “paradoxico-critical” orientation (ex. Derrida, Late Wittgenstein). Or the orientation is consistent without being complete, the “generic” orientation (ex. Badiou, Gödel). Livingston developed the historical reflection into an appraisal of the meaning of being and truth in Heidegger’s philosophy and presented truth as a phenomenon arising out of the paradoxical structure of the ontological difference. The lecture concluded with a realist interpretation of the temporality of Dasein in Heidegger’s Being and Time, taking up the structures of ecstasis, reflexivity, and auto-affectivity as purely formal structures without underlying dependence on a constituting agency or subject. The realist interpretation mobilizes the paradoxical structure of the ontological difference to open up the possibilities of the experience of time both as time of the individual Dasein and time as “world” or “public” time.

The third keynote, titled “Culture as Second Nature,” was delivered by Sebastian Luft (Marquette University). The lecture took as its point of departure the interpretation of the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer offered by Clarence Smith Howe, translator of an English edition of Cassirer’s The Logic of the Humanities (1961) [Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften (1942)]. In Howe’s introduction, he interprets Cassirer’s philosophy as a kind of naturalism, albeit a “culturalistic” naturalism. The interpretive claim, so argued Luft, seems to be at odds with more conventional interpretations of Cassirer as first and foremost a philosopher of culture. However, Howe’s claim is adopted by Luft as an opportunity to set up a confrontation between Cassirer’s symbolic idealism, in which the experience of nature is culturally mediated, and John McDowell’s version of naturalism, which arises out of his rejection of “bald” or “naive” naturalism. After reviewing the basic commitments of Cassirer and McDowell with respect to the experience of nature, Luft introduced Howe’s notion of “idealistic naturalism” (or culturalistic naturalism) as a mediating link between the naturalism of Cassirer and McDowell. In a concluding comparison of the two thinkers, Luft argued that Cassirer’s position was preferable to McDowell’s insofar as the former thinker allows “cultural intelligence” to have a wider purchase than mere ratiocination. That is, our human nature finds expression in cultural refuges — such as art and language — that are bound up with, but not reducible to, the rationality of McDowell’s space of reason.

The graduate student papers were presented in the mornings and afternoons, over the course of the two-day conference. Pete Burgess (Marquette University) explored different accounts of mental causation in “Are Acts and States Incompatible?: Mapping Versus Explaining Consciousness.” Justin Nordin (Loyola University Chicago) addressed the topic of moral normativity in “A Levinasian Approach to Moral Obligation.” Amelia Rhys (LUC) used philosophical resources in the work of Michel Foucault to treat a topical issue in bioethics in “The Contribution of Foucault’s Analysis of the Clinical Gaze to a Trans-Affirming Bioethics.” Daniel Adsett (MU) engaged Donald Davidson’s triangulation argument with respect to norms for speech and communication in “Coherence, Totality, and the Rational Subject.” Kyoungnam Park (LUC) provided a phenomenology of sensation and intuition in “Duration and Sense Impressions.” Gregory Trotter (MU) marked the intersection of phenomenology and psychoanalysis in “Fantasy and Freedom in Sartre and Psychoanalysis.”

The conference concluded with a brief presentation, given by Sebastian Luft, on funding opportunities available for academics interested in study in Germany, as well as a panel discussion. The panel discussion, titled “The Analytic-Continental Divide Today,” scheduled to include Andrew Cutrofello (Loyola University Chicago), James Dodd (The New School), Hanne Jacobs (Loyola University Chicago — absent), Paul Livingston (University of New Mexico), and Sebastian Luft (Marquette University), took up again the central theme of the conference in light of the discussion of the present and previous day. The panel participants were given an opportunity to present brief opening remarks before the discussion was opened to the general audience. Among the topics discussed: what is the nature of the Continental-Analytic divide? Is it a historical, political, sociological, etc., phenomenon? What strategies can be used to overcome the divide? What professional interests are invested in preserving the divide? What can we learn from an antinomarian reading of the divide? What is the future of philosophy beyond the divide? Can we project ourselves beyond the divide, or are we beyond the divide already?

Reviewed by: Michael Gutierrez (Loyola University Chicago), PhD student in philosophy and co-organizer of the phenomenology research group at Loyola.

Adolf Reinach. La fenomenologia, il realismo

Adolf Reinach. La fenomenologia, il realismo Book Cover Adolf Reinach. La fenomenologia, il realismo
Quodlibet Studio/Discipline filosofiche
Marco Tedeschini
july 2015