Tuesday, October 09, 2018
I got the LRB (27/9/18) at the kiosk Sunday. Stephen Mulhall reviews Graham Harman's Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything.
Harman actually regards Heidegger as his primary 'Continental' authority for both the four-fold ontology of the object and the inaccessibility of the real. Heidegger's later work certainly offers a ready (if deeply obscure) source for the figure of the four-fold; and he always emphasised that something about the real Being of things necessarily withdraws from us. However, Harman tries to derive this latter insight solely from Heidegger's early ontology of tools, and in particular from his valid but modest point that tools function smoothly as such primarily by virtue of sinking into the background when they are employed, thereby allowing the end-product or goal of the relevant activity to occupy the foreground.
But this self-concealing tendency does not on the face of it lead Heidegger to think that he is constitutionally debarred from giving a detailed analysis of the ontology of equipment, or of the non-objectual meaning-informed environment within which alone (he claims) tools can exist. And nothing in that analysis entails that genuine knowledge of the hammer, regarded as a material object as opposed to a tool, is impossible. On the contrary, that's the kind of knowledge of it that we naturally seek when, for example, a hammer is damaged, and so can no longer function smoothly as a hammer until it is repaired. What Heidegger is trying to show is that the environmental conditions which make it possible for us to grasp a hammer either as a tool or as a material object cannot them- selves be analysed in the terms appropriate to such encounters. At this deeper onto- logical level we do indeed find an enigmatic dialectic between disclosure and withdrawal. But that dialectic is what makes it possible for us to encounter objects as they are (or to fail to); it does not demonstrate that we can never do so.
These are deeply contested issues, of course. But Heidegger is at least not as straightforwardly vulnerable as Harman is to the following objection. If real objects and their properties are essentially inaccessible to us, how could we grasp — let alone articulate — an object-oriented ontology that not only posits their existence but delineates their turbulent four-fold nature?
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