Oops: Speculative Realism

(Via the wikipedia entry, which isn’t bad, and Graham Harman’s brief tutorial . . .)

Speculative Realism relies on two key principles, the Principles of Correlationism and Factiality. The first characterizes the mainstream of “Western philosophy” since Kant (Kant → the Idealists → phenomenology/analytic philosophy); the second, Speculative Realism.

The Principle of Correlationism

We can know only the correlate of thought and being; what lies outside that correlate is unknowable.

(The term was coined by Meillassoux in After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency [2006; Continuum, 2008].)

  • We can “know” things only insofar as we can think them (Kant, for example, posits a set of categories that serve as our cognitive operating system).
  • We cannot “know” things-in-themselves — tho we can imagine them (Schopenhauer, for example, imagines the thing-in-itself by analogy with “will”).

I.e., philosophy is based in the interplay of human and world (it is anthropic).

As a result, most Kantians concern themselves primarily with “access,” namely, how humans come to interpret things and the world — thus, epistemology, language analysis and critique. Ontology, inasmuch as it is done at all, is political: it represents a conflict over what exists. (See Meillassoux on correlationism.)

The Principle of Factiality

Things could be other than they are.

(See Meillassoux on factiality.)

Cf. what Levi Bryant calls the Ontic Principle: there is no difference that does not make a difference (a.k.a. Latour’s Principle: there is no transportation [relation between two “actors” or objects] without translation [a labour that produces something new in the process]). Everything counts. Thus,

  • no object is simply the bearer or vehicle of another object;
  • humans contribute only one difference among others.

Speculative Realism takes factiality as its starting point.

A Speculative Realist Genealogy

As against naïve realism (the world is as it seems) and transcendental idealism (the world is not as it seems), Speculative Realism holds that the world is — or, rather, can be — not as it seems.

Harman constructs a genealogy of post-Enlightenment philosophy in these terms:

  • Kant and Husserl are weak Correlationists (sceptics).
  • Hegel, Wittgenstein and Heidegger are strong Correlationists (idealists) and reject the Principle of Factiality.
  • Meillassoux, Harman, Grant and Brassier et al. are strong Factialists (speculative realists/materialists, a term coined by Brassier in 2007) and reject the Principle of Correlation.

Speculative realists thus return to Hume: they reject the necessity not only of all physical laws of nature, but all logical laws, including the Principle of Sufficient Reason — with the exception of the Principle of Non-Contradiction, upon which the Principle of Factiality relies.

Object-Oriented Philosophy

Yet, against what Harman calls anti-realist “radical philosophy,” which either

  • “undermines” objects (objects are the surfaces of the Real [cf. Schopenhauer, etc.]) or
  • “overmines” them (objects are bundles of qualities [cf. Hume, etc.] or relations [cf. Latour, Whitehead, etc.]),

and against most of the other Speculative Realists, he returns to objects: hence, the term Object-Oriented Philosophy (OOP, a term coined by Harman in 1999; cf. Tool Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects [Open Court, 2002] and Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things [Open Court, 2007]).

All things, whether physical or fictional, are equally objects.

  • When objects combine, they create new objects; objects can both come to be and pass away.
  • An object is an infinite recess; there is no “bottom” to the series of objects.
  • There are two types of objects: real objects (everyday things, e.g., cotton) and sensual objects, which can interact (caricatures of things, e.g., the cotton that burns).

So, for Speculative Realism, philosophy is based on one world, made up of objects (it is Copernican — or, to put it simply, realist).

Furthermore, ontology is independent of politics: it cannot be validated in terms of its political effects or be used to serve political ends, for example, to determine a political program or to ontologise political arguments; nonetheless, ontology can enable us to understand how to leverage power, i.e. to translate political thinking into action (see Nina Power). (See Harmon on “Object-Oriented Philosophy.”)

Further Reading


Mind Melds: Conceptual Blends

A very simple but suggestive notion of creativity (one among many, naturally, but one that focusses primarily on one but also, to a degree, on two other of the four aspects of creativity: the process [creating] and, to a certain extent, the person [the creator] and, less so, the product [the created object] — but not the place): the blend . . .

Conceptual blending or integration: the subconscious blending of objects and relations from diverse situations that is the basis of innovation, including what we call “creativity” — unconscious or generative (but potentially inventive, i.e. heuristic, or exploratoryanalogy.

  • Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner developed this theory as early as 1993, in their paper from the UCB/UCSD 1993 Cognitive Linguistics Workshop, “Conceptual Projection and Middle Spaces” (see The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities [New York: Basic Books, 2002]).
  • Finke, Ward and Smith’s “Geneplore” model splits creativity into two phases: the generative or pre-inventive phase (“inspiration”) and the exploratory or inventive phase (production) (R. Finke, T. B. Ward and S. M. Smith, Creative Cognition: Theory, Research and Applications [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992]).

This process enables us “to invent new concepts and to assemble new and dynamic mental patterns” — see Turner’s Blending and Conceptual Integration:

A mental space is a small conceptual packet assembled for purposes of thought and action [an idealized cognitive model — like a personal possible world]. A mental space network connects an array of mental spaces. A conceptual integration network is a mental space network that contains one or more “blended mental spaces.” A blended mental space is an integrated space that receives input . . . from other mental spaces in the network and develops emergent structure not available from the inputs.

For Stephen Mithin, it is this cognitive fluidity, this capacity to use metaphor and analogy, that distinguishes modern from archaic humans (The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science [New York: Thames & Hudson, 1996]).

Where the archaic mind was domain-specific (or strictly modular) — like a Swiss Army knife, the modern mind is more fluid (or interconnected in its modules): each person has a different combination of tools on their knife and can better apply them in combination(s). (See Andy Gorman’s review for a useful summary.)

The degree to which conceptual blending, as a cognitive capacity or activity that is in large part unconscious but nonetheless generative, can be consciously cultivated as an inventive process — as exploration — is moot.


  • Arthur Koestler on “bisociative matrices”: the creative act is a “bisociation” (not a mere association) which happens when two (or more) apparently incompatible frames of thought or “matrices” — or “mental spaces” in Turner’s terms — are brought together as in a dream or trance state (The Act of Creation [New York: Macmillan, 1964]).

From Terrence Deacon, "The Aesthetic Faculty," The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity, ed. Mark Turner (New York: Oxford UP, 2006).

  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on conceptual/cognitive metaphors: the understanding of one idea or conceptual domain in terms of another, for example, understanding quantity in terms of directionality, e.g. “prices are rising” — or love as a journey, life as a journey, love as war, etc. — or, as below, understanding deep time as a progression (the growth of a tree or rhizome) or succession (the change in a landscape), a wave, or a regression (Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind [Chicago: UCP, 1987] and Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By [Chicago: UCP, 1980]).

Metaphors for deep time, from Renee M. Clary, Robert F. Brzuszek and James H. Wandersee, "Students' Geocognition of Deep Time, Conceptualized in an Informal Educational Setting"

N.B. The etymology of the word “blend” suggests mixture, a blinding flash, luminosity — or clouding: the word stems from the Old English blondan or Old Norse blanda, “to mix”; interestingly, further back it is perhaps from the Proto-Germanic blandjan, “to blind,” via the connecting idea of “to make cloudy,” from the Proto-Indo-European base bhel- “to shine, flash, burn” (like our word “bleach”).

Hau Kainga

hau kāinga: (lit. home wind) homeland, homepage, the “side” of the hosts on the marae (as against that of the manuhiri or visitors)

Hoki mai ki te hau kāinga. “Return home.” (Return to your homeland, i.e., to your “home wind.”)

Dame Whina Cooper (1975):

Kia matāra, hokia o koutou tuohutanga e whai kanohi ai te hau kainga. “Take heed: swallow your pride and reconnect with those at home” (lit. “Be watchful: return to your humility and look for a face at home”; compare Shane Jones‘s translation).

Compare the Tuhoe whakatauki (proverb):

Hokia ki nga maunga kia purea koe e nga hau a Tawhirimatea. “Return to the mountains to be cleansed by the winds of Tawhirimatea.”

The idea that home would be marked by a wind, a certain atmosphere (hau takiwā), is suggestive. Like the Greek pneuma, the Latin spiritus and the German Geist, hau means both wind and spirit (lit. air, breath, gas; vital essence, vitality of human life; food used in ritual ceremonies, a.k.a. whangai hau).

The concept of hau has become something of a cause célèbre since Marcell Mauss wrote about it in The Gift (1922) as the spirit of reciprocity that attaches to a gift and in the circulation of gifts guarantees the social order. The hau demands that the gift be returned to its owner: it is the “force . . . in the thing given which compels the recipient to make a return” (1). Failure to reciprocate entails a loss of mana, that is, spiritual authority and wealth. A series of three obligations constitutes a gift proper (on my reading of Mauss):

  1. giving: asserting the social bond;
  2. receiving: accepting the social bond; and
  3. reciprocating: confirming the social bond by responding in kind.

(Mauss took the idea from Elsdon Best’s “Maori Forest Lore” [1909], not entirely unproblematically, as Marshall Sahlins explores at length in “The Spirit of the Gift” [1972].)

To return to hau kainga as “home wind”: think to what degree we  know a place by its winds — characteristic winds and other atmospherics, humidity, scent, etc. It is essential to — but often latent in — our experience of place and dwelling or otherwise: everything that lives breathes, after all.

We can go further: Heidegger sees the appearance and disappearance of being as a wind — a “draft” (Zugwind) he calls it — in the “pull” (Zug) of which “relation” (Bezug) only the strongest like Socrates (and presumably himself — and genuine poets too, like Hölderlin) can stand (What Is Called Thinking 17-18; on the poets, see “Remembrance” 109ff.). Thus,

The saying of the more venturesome which is more fully saying is the song. But “Song is existence,” says the third of the Sonnets to Orpheus, Part I. The word for existence, Dasein, is used here in the traditional sense of presence and as a synonym of Being. To sing, truly to say worldly existence, to say out of the haleness of the whole pure draft and to say only this, means: to belong to the precinct of beings themselves. This precinct, as the very nature of language, is Being itself. TO sing the song means to be present in what is present itself. It means: Dasein, existence. (“What Are Poets For?” 135; for an alternate translation, see “Why Poets?“)


  • Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share (1949; New York, NY: Zone, 1988). [This text is not available online; Benjamin Noys’s George Bataille: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto, 2000) has a section on the Accursed Share that deals with the gift (108ff.).]
  • Elsdon Best, “Maori Forest Lore” (part 3), Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 42 (1909): 436-41 (“The Mauri of the Forest”).
  • Jacques Derrida, “‘Counterfeit Money’ 1: Poetics of Tobacco (Baudelaire, Painter of Modern Life),”  Given Time: Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, IL: UCP, 1994) 71-107.
  • Martin Heidegger, “Phenomenology and Theology,” trans. James G. Hart and John C. Maraldo, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: CUP, 1998) 39-62.
  • —. “Remembrance,” Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 2000) 101-75. [On the wind as calling poets to their historical being (111).]
  • —. What Is Called Thinking, trans. J. Glenn Gray (NY: Harper & Row, 1968).
  • —. “Why Poets?,” Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2002) 200-41; “What Are Poets For?,” Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper Collins, 1971) 87-141. [On poets as risk-takers, those who “by a breath risk more” (see 236-41/134-39 and “Phenomenology and Theology” 61-62).]
  • Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (1922; London: Routledge, 1970).
  • Marshall Sahlins, “The Spirit of the Gift,” Stone Age Economics (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1972) 149-84.

tà mathémata: we can only learn what we already know

“Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here!” (inscription above the entrance to Plato’s Academy)

In his essay “Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics” (1962; from Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977] 247–82, an excerpt from “What is a Thing?” [1967; Chicago: Regnery, 1969] 66-108), Heidegger wrote:

In its formation the word mathematical stems from the Greek expression tà mathémata, which means what can be learned and thus, at the same time, what can be taught; manthanein means to learn, mathésis the teaching, and this is a twofold sense. First, it means studing and learning; then it means the doctrine taught. (249-50)

  • mathésis: teaching and learning
  • tà mathémata: what is teachable or learnable

Learning is a kind of grasping and appropriating. But not every taking is a learning. [. . .] To take means in some way to take possession of a thing and have disposal over it. Now, what kind of taking is learning? Mathémata—things, insofar as we learn them. . . .

The mathémata are the things insofar as we take cognizance of them as what we already know them to be in advance, the body as the bodily, the plant-like of the plant, the animal-like of the animal, the thingness of the thing, and so on [verbatim from “The Age of the World-Picture“]. This genuine learning is therefore an extremely peculiar taking, a taking where he who takes only takes what he basically already has. Teaching corresponds to this learning. Teaching is a giving, an offering; but what is offered in teaching is not the learnable, for the student is merely instructed to take for himself what he already has. If the student only takes over something that is offered he does not learn. He comes to learn only when he experiences what he takes as something he himself really already has. True learning occurs only where the taking of what one already has is a self-giving and is experienced as such. Teaching therefore does not mean anything else than to let the others learn, that is, to bring one another to learning. (251)

Heidegger continues:

Teaching is more difficult than learning; for only he who can truly learn . . . can truly teach. The genuine teacher differs from the pupil only in that he can learn better and that he more genuinely wants to learn. In all teaching, the teacher learns the most. (251-52)

I’m reminded of Plato’s discussion of amamnesis, of learning as remembering in the Meno and Phaedo—though Heidegger most often employs this characterisation of ta mathémata in his critique of the pseudo-circular nature of modern scientific research, which is almost tautological in its foreclosure of knowledge by its use of deductive or hypothetico-deductive method and its pursuit of objectivity.

In “The Age of the World-Picture,” he argues that scientific research is a type of rigorous knowledge (Erkennen, a.k.a. “judgement”) that relies on a procedure (Vorgehen, a.k.a., “priority, lead”) that establishes its field of operation by the projection (Entwurf, “design, project, plan, outline”) in advance of a ground-plan (Grundriss, a.k.a, “framework”): projection → procedure → knowledge.

But for him, to speak in the most general terms,

[t]he mathémata, the mathematical, is that “about” things which we really already know. Therefore we do not first get it out of things, but, in a certain way, we bring it already with us. (252)

Heinrich von Kleist: not the Marquis of the O, but of the Arrow

On the Marionette Theatre” by Heinrich von Kleist [1777-1811] (translated by Idris Parry) [pdf; alternative translation by Thomas G. Neumiller]

[“Über das Marionetten Theater,” Berliner Abendblätter (12-15 Dec. 1810)]

Michelangelo, The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden (1509-10)

Kleist suggests that the Garden of Eden could have a second gate: when we return to innocence via experience.

“[I]n the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794)

Interestingly, Philip Pullman made the same connection between Kleist and Blake in his Preface to the Folio Society edition of The Northern Lights (2008):

Where Kleist’s essay differed from [the “sickly nostalgia” of most children’s stories] was in its bracing optimism. We can’t go back, he says; as with the original Paradise, an angel with a flaming sword guards the way; if we want to return we have to go all the way around the world, and re-enter Paradise through the back gate, as it were. In other words, since we cannot dwell forever in the paradise of childhood, we have to go forward, through the disappointments and compromises and betrayals of experience, towards the fully conscious kind of grace that we call wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent.

But the dialogue can also be read as an ironic play on the dichotomy of classicism and romanticism, one in which a moral problem—the problem of knowledge of good and evil—is recast as an epistemological problem (as it always is by Kantians—and all those ethico-epistemologists who take knowledge as value-laden, from Socrates on). It becomes about what we know/can know and how we come to know it, and the whys and wherefores of both.

Kleist sides with neither classical idealism (Ideas are absolute: Idea-lism) nor romantic imagination (the I is Absolute: I-magination). For him, like Fichte, human beings desire an Absolute without ever being able to identify with It; individual existence hangs on this difference. Thus, consciousness is not grounded in anything outside of itself: we cannot know noumena, or things-in-themselves; the phenomenal world, or the world of things, arises from self-consciousness (I am conscious of myself . . .), the activity of the ego (. . . as an I . . .) and moral awareness (. . . because I am called to limit my freedom out of respect for the freedom of the other). The subject is intersubjective: I know I’m someone because I know I’m not someone else.

We might say: human beings are transcendent beings, not infinitely “transhuman,” i.e., in part divine (beyond-the-world), but finitely transhuman, i.e., always projecting (in-the-world), whether we take them to be always already embedded cognitively and socially, or desiring, or evolving by self-modifying or –versioning [transcendent, “climbing beyond,” from L. transcendere, from trans- “across” + scandere “climb”] (. . . hence Duchamps’ stroboscopic self). We are, to misread Heidegger’s ethico-epistemological axiom, “ecstatic beings in the world.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 (1912)

Thus, consciousness is the golden arrow of desire (or rather, desire [other-direction] precedes repulsion [self-protection]), always directed and dialogic.


See the new edition of Kleist: Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, ed. Peter Wortsman (Archipelago, 2009).

Boyle’s Air-Pump

(See the wiki.)

From 1844-ish, Robert Boyle (1627-91), alchemist and natural philosopher, was among band of inquirers known as the “Invisible College” (later the Royal Society of London), who devoted themselves to the cultivation of Bacon’s “new philosophy” (Novum Organum [1620]): the Baconian method of inductive reasoning (by which a “phenomenal nature,” e.g., heat, is reduced to a “form nature,” or cause that makes things hot), though he would never have admitted to being a student of any person or school, taking himself for a experimentalist par excellence. He relied on the documentation of first-hand observation of phenomena in the closed space of the laboratory, rather than hypothesis or calculation, as in the “Atomical” and Cartesian systems.

Reading in 1657 of Otto von Guericke’s air-pump, Boyle set himself, with the assistance of Robert Hooke, to devise improvements in its construction. The result was the “machina Boyleana” or “Pneumatical Engine,” finished in 1659, with which he began a series of experiments on the properties of air, an account of which was published as New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (Made, for the Most Part, in a New Pneumatical Engine) (1660). He describes 43 experiments on the effect of air on various phenomena: the effects of “rarified” air on combustion, magnetism, sound, and barometers, and the effects of increased air pressure on various substances. He lists two experiments on living creatures: “Experiment 40,” which tested the ability of insects to fly under reduced air pressure, and “Experiment 41,” which demonstrated the reliance of living creatures on air for their survival (see the Wright image below).

(Among Boyle’s critics was the Jesuit Franciscus Linus [1595–1675], and it was while answering his objections that Boyle first proposed the law that the volume of a gas varies inversely to the pressure of the gas, the law that has taken his name.)

For Bruno Latour, Boyle’s innovation was to rely on a “parajudicial” metaphor (rather than logical, mathematical or rhetorical method), whereby

credible, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, the matter of fact, even if they do not know its true nature.

What counts here is

not . . . these gentlemen’s opinion [a doxa, strictly speaking], but rather the observation of a phenomenon produced artificially in the closed and protected space of a laboratory. (We Have Never Been Modern [1991; Harvard UP, 1993] 18)

In effect, then, as Donna Haraway has suggested, the witnesses become “invisible” and “transparent”; but, in fact, “[v]ision requires an instrument of vision; an optics is a politics of positioning,” i.e., the good gentlemen bearing witness aren’t sitting on their invisible hands (“Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature [Routledge, 1991] 193 [183-203]). As Joseph Wright’s representation of Experiment 41 shows, affect positions the witnesses—man, woman and child alike in the enlarged socius of the late eighteenth century—vis-à-vis the object under examination.

Joseph Wright, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768)

This laboratory [L. workroom] is a new world: a designed micro-environment open to examination, a “theatre of proof”—not unlike a classroom, perhaps (Latour 18). And it is not an inside, an epistemological low pressure zone, of which society and politics are the outside that locate—or press upon—it, because “[n]o science can exit from the network of its practice” (ibid., 23). It is a microcosm where science and politics mingle—in the form of the quasi-objects of culture. That science and politics can be kept apart is the pretense of modernity, viz . . .

Thus, Boyle gives us a repertoire for speaking about nature (as constructed in the laboratory): “experiment,” “fact, “evidence” and “colleagues”—as Hobbes does for culture, i.e., politics (as embodied in the Leviathan): “representation,” “sovereign,” “contract,” “property” and “citizens” (ibid., 25).


For Peter Sloterdijk, the air-pump might well have whispered something more sinister (see Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patton [2002; Semiotext[e], 2009; see “Airquakes” from Sphären]). In “Air,” Latour summarises Sloterdijk’s argument that chemical warfare (“military climatology”), which united terrorism, product design and environmental thinking, ushered in the age of “atmoterrorism” on 22 April 1915 (Terror 19, 23):

[A]ir has been made explicit; air has been reconfigured; it is now part of an air-conditioning system that makes our life possible.

Latour could have argued that this episteme was ushered in—or announced, at least—by Boyle 350 years earlier.

Throwing Shadows on the Wall: Wittgenstein’s Duck-Rabbit


2ND FADE, Wittgenstein, 2ndfade.com, 12 June 2009, retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/2ndfade/3620735526/

In the Philosophical Investigations (Part II, §xi),

Wittgenstein discussed figures which can be seen and understood in two different ways. Often one can see something in a straightforward way—seeing that it is a rabbit, perhaps. But, at other times, one notices a particular aspect—seeing it as something.

An example Wittgenstein uses is the “duckrabbit,” a picture that can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit. When one looks at the duck-rabbit and sees a rabbit, one is not interpreting the picture as a rabbit, but rather reporting what one sees. One just sees the picture as a rabbit. But what occurs when one sees it first as a duck, then as a rabbit? As the gnomic remarks in the Investigations indicate, Wittgenstein isn’t sure. However, he is sure that it could not be the case that the external world stays the same while an “internal” cognitive change takes place. (wikipedia; see “Jastrow Duck Rabbit“)

Such aspect-seeing, of course, a metaphor for his whole uncanny philosophy-of-the-everyday: seeing what seems simple (first-order) as complex (second-order), or what seems ordinary (“canny”: heimlich) as extraordinary (uncanny, unheimlich). Ostranenie: defamiliarization (tho W would call it familiarization, I’m sure). Gestalt shift.

cubeshftTho we are naturally “aspect-blind,” we can learn to see: “If I fix my eyes first on the corners a and only glance at baappears in front and b behind, and vice versa” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.5423, tr. Ogden). Phew.