Towards Speculative Realism

I’m nearing the home stretch on Graham Harman’s book, Towards Speculative Realism and thought that I would pause a moment for a brief reflection on its effects.

In the first place, Harman’s book is an excellent introduction to Object Oriented Philosophy, his own variety of Speculative Realism. We begin during his graduate study and the development of his reading of Heidegger in Tool-Being and trace the emergence of his advocacy of a return to metaphysics, the peculiar “vicarious causation”, and his incorporation of insights found in Whitehead, Latour, and others. The importance of this aspect of Harman’s work should not be underestimated as it provides us with a unique opportunity to get a real sense of the path that Harman’s thought has taken from his time in DePaul, his work in Cairo, and the many travels that cross these periods. This historical dimension of the text is what has lured me deeper into the text, beyond my engagement with his arguments.


In his essay, The Revival of Metaphysics in Continental Philosophy, Harman makes an especially illuminating statement concerning the historical proclivities of the Continental genre:

If the strength of continental philosophy’s historical awareness is its ability to preserve great past thinkers against the trivial claims of passing fashion, the weakness is equally obvious: continental philosophy is simply unable to treat past philosophers as contemporaries. Past philosophers do not join us in confronting a shared world against which all of us measure our insights, but swim in a historically conditioned ether that refers only itself. It would make no sense to engage in debate with, say, Nicholas of Cusa on some specific issue without first situating this issue in his entire written corpus, mastering Latin, and so forth. Any past philosophy is too self-enclosed to serve as a possible model of the world, and too seamless to be harvested for specific insights.

This position of Harman’s and his project of treating the heroes of the discipline as fellow engineers in the production of concepts, of inhabiting historically distinct periods of a shared world of experience, is invaluable for the development of the field. I feel that it is safe to argue that, while an understanding of the history of philosophy is essential for those of us who take the vocation of philosophy seriously, we are often, as students and professionals, confined to extolling the benefits of the past without engaging in the development of the present. The masters, being masters, are our superiors and are required to be treated accordingly. . . unless something about your past leaves you open to ad hominem attack (see the endless debates on Nietzsche’s mental illness and Heidegger’s Nazi involvement). While it is true that the achievements of the past should be treated with reverence, it is also important to learn how to find our own role in the philosophical project. Harman’s book is an excellent guide for how this is done.

I share a similar affinity for the advice posts of Harman’s blog, that have been a godsend in my process of transitioning from coursework to the development of a dissertation project. For students in a similar position as myself it is helpful to observe the process of another, not as a template for one’s own development, but as a demonstration that the path from student to professional is a process must unfold itself over time. We see this progression in the development of Harman’s writing from his early graduate papers through his beautifully composed “Bruno Latour: King of Networks”, which ends in a poetic redeployment of Heidegger’s Parmenidean borrowing “For here too, the gods are present.” (Graham really has mastered the punctuated ending.) In this transition we see the subtle ways in which academic writing can transform into a more polished, confident tone of experimentation with thoughts and perfection of old modes and motifs. For myself, this aspect of the work stands as a reminder that we are not born Whiteheads, Heideggers, or Harmans, but become such in our continued work and effort.

Harman hints at as much in his preface, where he explains that the introductions to his essays are not meant to “dramatize his own story, but to reassure young readers about their own.” It is in this sense that I write my review as a way of saying “Thank you” to Graham for sharing his work and experience, and as a recommendation to others to explore this text as an opportunity to engage with a significant philosophical achievement that is in process in our midst. OOO has had the dual effect, it seems, of re-energizing the conceptual engagement of philosophers with metaphysics and process through the problems it poses and through the medium in which it is developing. It would be equally interesting, I think, to observe and consider the way in which OOO’s engagement with the blogosphere (do we still use this term?) has realized their work, both in the sense of bringing it to bear on contemporary philosophical discourse and as a demonstration of the type of scheme that they theorize. In either case, I would recommend Harman’s work and give a preemptive nod to the upcoming The Speculative Turn, including work by Levi Bryant, Steven Shaviro, Zizek, Delanda, Protevi, and a host of other exciting figures in the current conversation.

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~ by Michael L. Thomas on December 9, 2010.

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