Friday, April 26, 2013

Nameless horror

(More on object-oriented ontology and Wittgenstein. The post's title refers to HP Lovecraft, who was fond of the phrase. A search for "nameless horror" in these collected stories gets five hits.)

Brian Kim Stefans writes:
The one principle that is inarguably shared by these philosophers [i.e. "speculative realists"] is quite simple: they wish to retrieve philosophy from a tendency initiated, or at least made unavoidable, by the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the subject (meaning a human being) can [n]ever know anything about the external world due to the very fact of subjectivity.
Surely many philosophers, including Wittgenstein, reject this skepticism. But there is more to speculative realism than this:
Harman’s philosophy displaces the mind→object relationship with that of object→object, the “mind” being just one object among many.     
Compare Chon Tejedor on the early Wittgenstein:
Wittgenstein suggests that, given the fundamental contingency of facts, it is a source of profound wonder that any possible state should obtain as a fact. This sense of wonder arises in connection to all facts: physical facts (involving the rocks, plants, animals and human physical bodies we describe in language and think about) but also mental facts (i.e. our thoughts, desires, beliefs, emotions and, more broadly, our minds and empirical selves). Being clear in one's grasp of certain formal concepts involves being disposed to use signs in particular ways so as to reflect the fundamental contingency of facts. But this involves treating ourselves (i.e. human beings) as facts on a par, with respect to their contingency, with all other facts in the world.
Now back to Harman:
An idiosyncratic feature of Harman’s philosophy is that “objects” for him are not just things, and certainly not just natural things, but also concepts, imagined entities, and nearly any entity that can have some effect on reality for however long or short a time, on however large or small a scale, and at whatever level of availability to human perception or “science.” 
This is not a radically new idea. Compare Russell’s notion of a term in The Principles of Mathematics
Whatever may be an object of thought, or may occur in any true or false proposition, or can be counted as one, I call a term. This, then, is the widest word in the philosophical vocabulary. I shall use as synonymous with it the words unit, individual, and entity.  A man, a moment, a number, a class, a relation, a chimaera, or anything else that can be mentioned, is sure to be a term; and to deny that such and such a thing is a term must always be false. (p. 43) 
See also Frege: “Places, instants, stretches of time, logically considered, are objects,” p. 42— “On Sinn und Bedeutung” in The Frege Reader.  I speculate more about what the early Wittgenstein might have meant by 'objects' and, especially, 'things' here

So speculative realism does not sound all that incompatible with Wittgenstein's philosophy, except for its metaphysical ambitions. How does Lovecraft fit in? 
In Lovecraft’s version of reality, laws seem to function in ways that make our foundational certainties — Euclidean geometry, the private experience of dreams, the inviolable divisions between human, animal, plant, and the nonliving, etc. — merely contingent: just the way things appear to us, rather than absolute necessities.
This makes Lovecraft sound not so much anti-Kantian as a product of the post-Kantian world. Apparently what makes Lovecraft so great is that he takes the world to be weird, and he is not a linguistic idealist (nor someone who focuses on language rather than the world). Sounds like Musil. Or Wittgenstein (see the emphasis on contingency in the Tejedor quote above). (Or Kafka, for that matter. And many other people.) Wittgenstein certainly pays attention to language, but not because he's a linguistic idealist, and not because he isn't interested in life or the world.

Lovecraft seems Schopenhauerian, given his Kantian emphasis on the unknown but with a horrible, pessimistic twist. (He's also Shakespearean, or Macduffian, given this from Macbeth:
O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee!
To use Harman's words, I would say that here "language is overloaded by a gluttonous excess" of negatives and iterations of 'horror.' But I digress.)

And Wittgenstein's ethics, or religious attitude, if you prefer, is rather Schopenhauerian too, though in a different way. Schopenhauer links art and genius with a kind of knowing that is independent of the principle of sufficient reason. There is little room for the principle of sufficient reason in Wittgenstein's philosophy, at least in the early Wittgenstein. The only necessity is logical necessity, so there is no reason sufficient to explain why things have to be as they are. Compare also the later Wittgenstein on the two identical-seeming seeds that produce different plants. Wittgenstein challenges the assumption that there must be some undetected difference in the seeds.

In short I quite like the sound of speculative realism, but mostly because it reminds me of Wittgenstein. I wonder whether the two could be brought fruitfully together. Perhaps I should investigate further.


  1. passed this along to G.Harman, he is generally quite open to collaboration across interests/disciplines.

  2. Quick response here by way of clarification (thanks for sending me the link to this page, dmf)...

    As for everything being classified as an object, the reviewer didn't say this was a "radically new" feature of my philosophy, simply an "idiosyncratic" one. It's definitely not new. You mention Russell and Frege, but there are also Meinong, Twardowski, and Husserl, all of them using "object" as a global or near-global term for the subject matter of philosophy (and Latour with his "actors" does much the same thing). The fact that it's been done before doesn't mean it's an easy position to defend today (and this is what the term "idiosyncratic" was getting at). There are plenty of vituperative comments about object-oriented philosophy that sneer about putting Popeye in the same sentence as quarks.

    As for Wittgenstein also putting all human and non-human things on the same footing, I think its quite debatable, but object-oriented philosophy is not new on this point either, since Whitehead certainly does the same thing. So, no claim is made to originality here either.

    The distinctive position of object-oriented philosophy is that what puts humans, animals, and inanimate objects all on the same footing is that none of them have direct access to each other, not even at the brute causal level. Kantian finitude is projected into all things, no longer limited to humans, so that only indirect or vicarious causation is possible.

    Some have claimed that even certain medieval thinkers said this too, but I won't get into that here. I just wanted to respond quickly to the thoughts above. Cheers.

  3. Thanks very much! Thanks to dmf, too, for spreading the word.

    I didn't mean to reject object-oriented philosophy on the grounds of its non-newness. On the contrary, most of the ideas I like are at least as old as Wittgenstein, so I meant more that whatever might be regarded as idiosyncratic about this school of thought should not necessarily put people like me off. I also know next to nothing about object-oriented philosophy, so I'm in no position to reject it for alleged lack of originality or for any other reason. And given my ignorance I'm grateful for the clarification.

    I don't think I quite get the distinctive position you describe, but that's not meant as a rejection either. I'll obviously have to look into it more.

  4. OOP? I get the distinct impression that a certain amount of snake oil is being sold...

  5. Well, I don't know. I need to look into it more, as I've said. It didn't interest me at first because speculation and metaphysics don't appeal to me much. But it's made a big enough splash that it might be worth knowing something about it, and what little I've read always seems to contain at least one intriguing thing (reference to Lovecraft, echo of Wittgenstein, etc.). In the fictional version of the summer where I just lie around and read I would read two or three of Harman's books. Then maybe I'd get nearer the bottom of it.

  6. i found the heidgger book worth looking at, duncan.

  7. Oh good (and thanks). Heidegger Explained, I assume, although Tool-Being is supposed to be good too.

  8. no, i mean the latter, i've never seen the former.

  9. Thanks. Reading list adjusted accordingly.