Quora answer: What is object-oriented ontology?

Jul 06 2013


I read the Tool-Being book and was not impressed. I don’t think he understood Heidegger’s distinction and I think the position that he comes up with based on his misinterpretation really makes no sense.

You really have to consider Heidegger’s work in the context of Husserl’s project. And in one sense all Heidegger is doing is contrasting what Husserl already discovered which was the difference between Abstractions and Essences. Heidegger raises this distinction to the ontological level saying that these two complementary modes of Being itself, not a phenomenological detail but having deeper ontological distinctions.

People forget that Heidegger wanted to be a Physicist first, then chose Theology when that was closed to him, and finally settled as a third choice for philosophy which the mentorship of Husserl opened to him with the possibility of becoming a professor. So this distinction between Present-at-Hand and Ready-to-hand is primarily a reflection of the distinctions between normal experience and the deeper planes of explanation offered in the Physics of his time where Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics were the new theories of nature that were both exploding on the scene. And they are still with us, and they are both still splitting experience into the normal Newtonian level of experience, and the new levels either global curved spacetime or the Quantum Mechanical level both of which present things very differently than we our intuitively understand them. Heidegger responding to the sentiments of Husserl in Krisis before the fact, because he was engaged in  the same problematic, basically takes this  split into phenomenology of everyone by inscribing it into ontology as the difference between the Present-At-Hand and Ready-to-hand. I go into this more in my dissertation called Emergent Design (http://about.me/emergentdesign). He inscribes the inexplicable region of phenomena to the ready to hand because we can only reach that via technology, and thus we have a way of looking at things that is essential which is a circumspective concern that appears in Technology and is concerned with Poesis. On the other hand the present-at-hand modality is the familiar Newtonian way of looking at phenomena that holds in the middle ground which we normally experience, and that we can experience directly by seeing cannon balls fly or planets swing around the sun. In other words Heidegger re-inscribes the divisions of experience seen in Relativity Theory (Macro) and Quantum Mechanics (Micro) back into the experience of Dasein which has its basis in what Aristotle calls Phronesis (Judgment), and which differentiates Episeme the kind of knowledge of Science, from that of Technology which governs Poesis. So these distinctions are already there in Aristotle and Heidegger merely restates them again at an ontological level in order to solve the problem of the gap between the lifeworld, or being-in-the-world, and Scientific understanding that seemed to have pulled completely away from the comprehensible in two different and paradoxically opposed ways. This split between Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics is still with us and thus Heidegger’s solution is still relevant. We can only get at these realms outside normal experience though technology, and thus whatever they say that is different from what we normally think about the world are based on a hidden way we have of relating to technology he calls circumspective concern.

Harman seems to miss the fact that all this analysis by Heidegger in Being and Time takes place in a Phenomenological framework established by Husserl, and is thus Kantian, and he seems to think that these phenomenological distinctions have a relevance to the things themselves, which is pretty well impossible. So I think Tool Being is just a radical misunderstanding of Heidegger, which ultimately has no meaning because it missed the point, and misuses the distinctions that Heidegger makes which are well thought out and founded on distinctions already made and accepted in the tradition, but just redeployed at an Ontological level, which is the real novelty here. Kant really did not distinguish Abstraction from Essence perception. Hegel had a notion of Essence being different from the Idea and talked about it at length in his Logic. Husserl takes it up again with a more detailed phenomenological analysis, and then Heidegger redeploys it again at the Ontological level making it part of a difference in Being itself.

What is interesting is that this unleashes Pandora’s box as other ontological distinctions are found that have higher meta-levels such as Being crossed out, Differance and Hyper Being which turns out to be what Plato called the Third Kind of Being in the Timaeus, and then Merleau-Ponty discovers is that there is a fourth kind of Being called Wild Being as well. To this we can add a fifth kind of Being called Ultra Being mentioned by Badiou and myself. It took me a long time to figure out if this fifth meta-level of Being existed or now, but now I think it does.

Harmon’s Tool Being is an example of someone who is not really familiar with the whole development of Continental Philosophy coming in and seizing on a particular distinction, and trying to make something out of it that it is not, in order to say something novel but ending up really only making distinctions that are nonsense from the point of view of the tradition. Objects do not withdraw from each other, they have no phenomenology. It is just a crazy idea and it is hard to see how someone can get something like this so wrong. And this is the nihilism that we get when Continental Philosophy is appropriated without really understanding it. This happens a lot in American academia. There are just so many books which try to follow the lead of Continental Philosophy but just do not “get it”. To get it you have to understand the development of the tradition, and how each thinker is building on the prior ones, and how they are all exploring together and looking at the same horizon of phenomenology as seen in terms of Marxism, psychoanalysis, political events of their time, and literature. It is aa broad complicated tradition but it does have a trajectory, and they are using each other’s works to bootstrap their own understanding to deeper levels of comprehension. They have what Lakatos calls a research program and they are all part of it each making their contributions, and the main line in that is from Kant to Husserl, to Heidegger, to Sartre/Merleau-Ponty, to Derrida/Lacan, to Deleuze/Foucault, to now Badiou/Zizek. Throw in for good measure Bataille, Levi-Strauss, M. Henry, and a few other lesser lights, and you have the basic flow of the tradition.

Fundamentally they are exploring the meta-levels of Being one by one. Heidegger kicks it off with Being and Time. They are all trying to go back to Hegel and to get a deeper view of Marxism in light of Nietzsche and psychoanalysis as well as developments in literary theory. Then Heidegger discovers a third kind of Being and gets worried, but Derrida jumps on it and Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception discovers it independently as he is rewriting Being and Time from a psychological perspective. Merleau-Ponty then discovered Wild Being. Deleuze takes that up and tries to build a philosophy at that fourth meta-level level of Being just like Derrida did for Differance as the third meta-level. Badiou tries to go beyond Deleuze and talk about Ultra Being which is the fifth meta-level but is less successful at building a philosophy at that level, it is more of a retrenchment, but at least it indicates that the ultra-one exists. Zizek attempts to contrast Lacan with Derrida and to disparage the achievements of Deleuze, the other deeper interpreter of Lacan. In a sense Zizek’s work is a better image of the Ultra One than Badiou’s attempt to isolate it in the appearance of the One from the Multiple as an Event. The interpretation of Lacan gives access to the field of ideology, and shows how language is really the unconscious and that we cannot escape it. The Ultra One is a singularity, and Zizek shows us what it looks like trapped inside that singularity which is language that makes everything in our world ideological. If you don’t understand that these philosopher are climbing the stairway to nowhere offered by the meta-levels of Being: Pure, Process, Hyper, Wild, Ultra then you are not going to understand what they are doing together. And when we see that these distinctions appear in the Rig Veda as the differences between the Gods, the Castes and the Roots of Being in Old English for instance then we cannot really see its significance. The significance is that they are uncovering the fundamental distinctions within the Western Worldview that have always been there but were lost for a long time from our theoretical understanding of ourselves. They are crucial for understanding the Emergent Event. Every genuine Emergent event goes through these phases in its emergence and thus shows us a face of the world when it appears.

See more in my Fragmentation of Being and the Path beyond the Void at http://works.bepress.com/kent_palmer

To my mind this is the crucial nexus of exploration that Continental Philosophy has gone though which is of interest. Tool Being is a misappropriation of some Heideggerian ideas for other mostly irrelevant purposes. It is described as a school but I don’t see it going anywhere interesting, and it is not an extension of the research program of Continental Philosophy as far as I can see. But as in all things, maybe I am wrong and this is really important stuff, but somehow I don’t see it.

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