Graham Harman

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Graham Harman
Graham Harman at MACBA.jpg
Graham Harman
Born (1968-05-09) May 9, 1968 (age 47)
Iowa City, Iowa
Nationality American
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Speculative Realism
Main interests
Metaphysics, Realism, Occasionalism
Notable ideas
Object-oriented ontology, tool-being, vicarious causation, allure

Graham Harman (born May 9, 1968) is a professor at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. He is a contemporary philosopher of metaphysics, who attempts to reverse the linguistic turn of Western philosophy. He terms his ideas object-oriented ontology. A larger grouping of philosophers, Speculative Realism, includes Harman and the philosophers Iain Hamilton Grant, Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier.[2]


Born in Iowa City and raised in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Harman attended St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, receiving his B.A. in 1990. He then pursued graduate study under philosopher Alphonso Lingis at Penn State University, receiving his M.A. in 1991.[3] He received his Ph. D. from DePaul University in 1999. Harman authored an online sports column during his doctoral thesis work. He believes his academic writing style and productivity was improved as a result. Since 2000, he has been a member of the Department of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo.[4]


Through an interpretation of the "tool-analysis" of Heidegger's Being and Time, Harman sets out to develop what he calls an object-oriented philosophy. Taking the tool-analysis as the defining moment in twentieth-century philosophy, Harman finds in Heidegger the roots of a metaphysics of things which does justice to the autonomous existence of objects. Although working from within it, he finds the broad history of phenomenology to be deficient in that it constantly subordinates the independent life of objects to our (human) access to them. Against the Kantian tradition, his object-oriented approach considers the neglected real life of objects to be fertile ground for a resurgent metaphysics. Emphasizing the notions of substance and occasional cause (see occasionalism), he affirms the absolute autonomy of objects from all other objects while aiming to "allude" to their shadowy underground life and covert interactions by means of metaphor.

According to Harman, everything is an object, whether it be a mailbox, a gas, the Commonwealth of Nations, Popeye, spacetime, a shadow or an eclipse. However, drawing on phenomenology, he does distinguish between two categories of objects: real objects and sensual objects (or intentional objects), which sets his philosophy apart from the flat ontology of Bruno Latour.[5]

Central to Harman's philosophy is the idea that real objects are inexhaustible: "A police officer eating a banana reduces this fruit to a present-at-hand profile of its elusive depth, as do a monkey eating the same banana, a parasite infecting it, or a gust of wind blowing it from a tree. Banana-being is a genuine reality in the world, a reality never exhausted by any relation to it by humans or other entities." (Harman 2005: 74). Because of this inexhaustibility, claims Harman, there is a metaphysical problem regarding how two objects can ever interact. His solution to this problem is to introduce the notion of "vicarious causation", according to which objects can only ever interact on the inside of an "intention" (which is also an object).[6]

Harman defines real objects as inaccessible and infinitely withdrawn from all relations and then puzzles over how such objects can be accessed or enter into relations: "by definition, there is no direct access to real objects. Real objects are incommensurable with our knowledge, untranslatable into any relational access of any sort, cognitive or otherwise. Objects can only be known indirectly. And this is not just the fate of humans — it’s the fate of everything. Fire burns cotton stupidly ..."[7]

Cutting across the phenomenological tradition, and especially its linguistic turn, Harman deploys a brand of metaphysical realism that attempts to extricate objects from their human captivity and metaphorically allude to a strange subterranean world of "vacuum-sealed" objects-in-themselves: "The comet itself, the monkey itself, Coca-Cola itself, resonate in cellars of being where no relation reaches."[8]

Expressing strong sympathy for panpsychism, Harman proposes a new philosophical discipline called "speculative psychology" dedicated to investigating the "cosmic layers of psyche" and "ferreting out the specific psychic reality of earthworms, dust, armies, chalk, and stone."[9] Harman does not, however, unreservedly endorse an all-encompassing panpsychism and instead proposes a sort of polypsychism that nonetheless must "balloon beyond all previous limits, but without quite extending to all entities".[10] He continues by stating that "perceiving" and "non-perceiving" are not different kinds of objects, but can be found in the same entity at different times: "The important point is that objects do not perceive insofar as they exist, as panpsychism proclaims. Instead they perceive insofar as they relate."[10]

Harman rejects scientism on account of its anthropocentrism: "[T]here’s a more insidious form of human-centric ontology, as found in many version of scientism. On the one hand, scientism insists that human consciousness is nothing special, and should be naturalized just like everything else. On the other hand, it also wants to preserve knowledge as a special kind of relation to the world quite different from the relations that raindrops and lizards have to the world. Another of putting it… for all their gloating over the fact that people are pieces of matter just like everything else, they also want to claim that the very status of that utterance is somehow special. For them, raindrops know nothing and lizards know very little, and some humans are more knowledgeable than others. This is only possible because thought is given a unique ability to negate and transcend immediate experience, which inanimate matter is never allowed to do in such theories, of course. In short, for all its noir claims that the human doesn’t exist, it elevates the structure of human thought to the ontological pinnacle."[11]


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