Quora Answer: What is the most direct, non-reference based, explanation of the relationship between the concepts of “withdrawal” and “object” within Speculative Realism?

Oct 18 2014

Unfortunately Speculative Realism of Harman of Tool-Being fame is based on a really monumental misunderstanding of Heidegger in Being and Time. As with many interpretations of Heidegger, some fragment of the philosophy is seized upon as if it were everything and pushed to a limit that cannot be ultimately supported. Harman it appears wants to push to the limit the ideas of withdrawal of objects into themselves and thus discounts relations between objects and our access to them. We might think this just silly if it were not so painful to watch someone make such a fool of themselves in public. Could we just read the whole book and place it in the tradition. Do we have to seize on one thing, a way of speaking and pretend it is everything that Heidegger has to say?

In order to understand this we must go back to square one. Heidegger is a phenomenologist. That means that his philosophy is based on what appears to us. He is operating in the limits set by Kant, and held in common with Hegel and Nietzsche. He does not present us with a noumenal philosophy like Monadology of Leibniz for instance which really does have a philosophy like that which Harman is trying to pin on Heidegger. For Kant the noumena is just a marker for what we cannot know. It is a limit concept. By establishing the limit Kant thinks he is going to save us from uncritical metaphysics that would go beyond that limit. Well here we have Harman going beyond that limit with the idea that objects have their own life beyond the noumenal limit. I have no problem with that, it is just outside the bounds that Kant has laid down and that Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger have respected. Harman is just a ungrounded metaphysician like so many before Kant. He just does not get the copernican turn. We can speculate all we want about the noumenal but there will never be any evidence to support such speculation, and Kant would say then that it is useless speculation. But have at it if you don’t have anything better to do. But don’t pin this lapse onto Heidegger the phenomenologist. He would have written a letter on Speculative Realism like his letter on Humanism disavowing these ideas just as he rejected Sartre’s interpretation of his philosophy. It is a gross misunderstanding of the idea of the modes of being-in-the-world. Both present-at-hand and ready-to-hand are modes of being-in-the-world, i.e. phenomenological not noumenal. How Harman can think ready-to-hand is noumenal is really beyond me. Seems to me he is taking the most interesting part of Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein and willfully misunderstanding it just for rhetorical effect. It is uninteresting. It should not be mixed up with actor-network-theory of Bruno LaTour which is a different kettle of fish and does not suffer from this kind of willful ignorance, but is instead a very interesting extension of the tradition. Somehow these various trend are conflated.

The withdrawal that Heidegger is talking about is a phenomenological dynamic not something that objects are doing behind the scenes themselves as noumena. When Heidegger later talks about withdrawal on a more global scale after the turning he is still talking about something phenomenological. Heidegger is very clear that signs both show themselves and withdraw pointing to something that is absent. Showing and hiding is a dynamic of consciousness not some mystical life of objects behind the scenes. Someone who does talk about his is Michael Henry in The Essence of Manifestation. He criticizes Heidegger’s ontological monism because he realizes that Heidegger is talking only about what manifests and not something hidden behind the scenes in a nominal realm. Henry believes in this noumenal realm which he calls the Essence of Manifestation. Henry basically has everything that Harman lacks, for instance he understand what Heidegger is saying, and then critiques it showing its weakness with respect to the understanding of the noumenal which he relies of Meister Eckhart a great mystic to supply. There is plenty that is hidden beyond the Ontological Monism of Heidegger that is worth talking about. But it is again addressed in a phenomenological context, not in terms of individual objects have a life of their own beyond the noumenal limit. The way Harman puts it is embarrassingly naive. It just does not take us anywhere to confer a life of their own to individual objects beyond the noumenal limit. It makes me think of the comedy of the Cratylus which makes fun of both the nominalists and those who think roots of words give us a mystical insight into the real nature of things. This is an even more ludicrous comedy where objects are scuttling around in the dark having relations with themselves that no one knows anything about and withdrawing from us. Withdrawal of Being in later Heidegger is a global phenomenological occurrence. It is not a local object by object production of black holes. Even for Sarte it is the whole of consciousness that is the black hole hovering over Nothingness not individual objects. Whether individual objects are blackholes or not is irrelevant to us since we cannot know them. All we can know is the showing and hiding dynamic of consciousness. Withdrawal of some aspect of things in relation to some other aspect of things that consciousness emphasizes  is something that happens in us, not in things. That since Kant is fundamental in our tradition. Knowers are active projecting on the world causing dynamics that appear as coming from objects but which are really coming from us. Harman seems to think he can go back to before the critical turn of Kantian philosophy and give us mysticism instead of philosophy, and we are going to take that lying down. The whole tradition is against him. He can do that but he is going off on his own back to the bad old days before Kant where people just dreamed up what ever they thought was interesting without submitting it to reason and phenomenology as judges of the validity of statements about the nature of things. Kant tied reason to experience. If it does not appear in experience then it just does not exist. What does appear in experience is greatly modified by our own faculties before we even see it, so it is impossible to say what is happening beyond the noumenal limit. So if we are smart we do not try. Objects do not withdraw on their own. Consciousness has a dynamic that pushes some to the fore and others to the background, or makes them absent to us. Transferring the agency to the objects in this way is not what B. LaTour and actor network theory is doing. B. LaTour is transferring human agency to things but in a phenomenologically sophisticated way following the tradition. All the nonhuman objects with agency appear phenomenologically in Actor-Network-Theory it is just how they appear is not how we expect. Noumenal Agency on the other hand is silly because we could not know about it, and so why speculate about it. It does not add anything to our understanding of either ourselves or the objects. It seems that the idea is almost the dual of projection, it says that the objects themselves are de-projecting themselves.  It says that there is an active noumenal agency that we can never know about. This is sort of like the idea of the Matrix in which humans are batteries that keep machines going. It is like the ideas of Monadology of Leibniz which is similar which has a strong noumenal soup within which monads are trapped, yet still with oracles that allow them to know what is going on with other monads virtually. Leibniz was merely trying to come up with something, anything to counteract the philosophy of Spinoza which systematically explored the ideas of Descartes taking them to the limits that Descartes himself avoided. Now because Leibniz was a genius his Monadology was a very interesting solution to the problem Spinoza posed for catholics who wanted their Descartes but God as non-pantheistic too. But Harman is no Leibniz. Leibniz and Hume set the basic context for Kantian philosophy, and the noumena is the vestige of the separation and isolation of the monads in a noumenal soup. There is something to be said for going beyond phenomenology after it has been exhausted, but Heidegger was not suggesting that as for instance Henry has and to an extent Sartre did. Heidegger conflated Being with thinking, with intelligibility following Parmenides. The non-intelligibility of noumenal objects having their own life in the darkness beyond our purview had no enticement for Heidegger. He was not a purveyor of the unconscious dynamics like Jung for instance or say Hillman. To the extent we want to posit an unconscious of objects in physical reality outside us we can do that although it should be called Speculative Irrealism rather than Speculative Realism. Realms is supposed to imply more that just figments of our imagination. And for Kant Transcendental Idealism is the royal route to Realism. Anything that did not appear to us in our experience could not be real because it is relegated to the unknown unknown and will never be known. The only way to understand the unconscious is to think about it in terms of the entire panoply of the dynamics of consciousness and the underlying mechanisms that make consciousness possible that are themselves unknown. But this is not to say that the things-in-themselves have an unconscious. Even if it were true what do we care because we can never know the answer to that riddle. Philosophy is normally about what can be known. Speculative Irrealism does not shed any light on that question as far as I can tell.

Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects: Graham Harman: 9780812694444: Amazon.com: Books

By the way Harman himself says that is interpretation of Heidegger was radical on page 1. He claims that Heidegger’s account of tools gives rise to an ontology objects themselves. He says, “Quite the contrary: readiness to hand refers to objects insofar as they withdraw from human view into a dark subterranean reality that never becomes present to practical action any more than it does to theoretical awareness.” This is a patent misreading of Heidegger’s idea of ready-to-hand. But he goes on to say that when things withdraw into the dark subterranean reality they distance themselves from each other as well, not just from humans.

What has withdrawn into a dark subterranean irreality is the mind of Graham Harman. The fact that he his not recognized as a crackpot is evidence of the depths to which the tradition has sunk in its nihilism.

Another point is that the term “object oriented philosophy” is rather unfortunate as this term means something significant in Software Engineering. I think noumenally oriented speculation would have been better, or just noumenal mysticism, perhaps.

See Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Posthumanities): Ian Bogost: 9780816678976: Amazon.com: Books

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