I received an interesting email today asking questions about idealism as OOO understands it. Since a number of people have asked questions like this, I thought I’d address it here as others might find it of value. The author writes:
I was present at one of your keynote speeches in the spring of this year.
I am a bit confused about the term idealism and its relation to realism. I have read most of your book Democracy of Objects but still have this question.
Why is not possible to be both an idealist and a realist?
Can one not believe in real objects which are ideal. I seemed to have learned that idealism was in opposition to materialism. And I understand that anti-realism is opposed to realism. But it seems like anti-realism and idealism always get associated.
Is this necessarily the case? Wasn’t Plato both an idealist and very much a realist since he believe that the ideas or the forms were the most real?
Good questions. Idealism, like materialism, is one of those highly polysemous terms that has a variety of different meanings. It seems that Marxists use the term “idealism” to refer to any position that is 1) ahistorical, and 2) that explains the world in terms of intellect rather than practices and labor production. When Marx “turns Hegel on his head”, he thus saying that the social world as we know it arises from modes of production, not principles of Spirit unfolding throughout history. When he criticizes someone like Plato as an “idealist”, he is doing so because Plato treats the forms as eternal and unchanging, rather than giving an account of how various values and ways of living arise out of conditions of production.
When those of us in the SR camp criticize idealism, we’re targeting something closer to Kant’s transcendental idealism that we believe to be the basic premise of most subsequent philosophy. Kant famously says that “objects conform to mind, rather than mind to objects.” In other words, Kant seems to reject the thesis that there is a correspondence between representations and a world as it is out there. Rather, all the entities that we talk about are restricted to what they are for us as a result of how our mind has structured the world about us. As a consequence, for Kant we must remain skeptical of what the world might be like apart from us. While Kant concedes that things-in-themselves exist, he argues that we can know nothing about these things. Indeed, we can’t even know if the world apart from us is composed of discrete things at all, or whether it is a pure flux without discrete terms at all. In other words, the idea seems to be that we can only talk about our idea of things, not things themselves.
Look, for example, at how Kant resolves the third antinomy which pertains to freedom and determinism. Kant argues that both the thesis that there is a cause that is uncaused (a free act) and that everything is determined are true. How is he able to say this when it seems like these propositions seem to be in such stark contrast with one another? Well, Kant argues that the thesis that everything is only determined only holds for the phenomenal world, or the world as it is experienced for us, where our minds apply the category of causality to the manifold of sensation. However, since the legitimate application of the categories only holds for the phenomenal world of experience and has no legitimate employment to the world as it is in-itself apart from our experience, it is entirely possible that there’s an uncaused cause that is not determined by prior causes. In other words, our claims about beings are restricted to what they are like for us, as a result of our cognitive structuration. What the world might be like apart from us we can never say (this is also how Kant makes room for faith).
All variants of SR reject the thesis that we’re restricted to talking about what things are for us, but do so in different ways. Truth be told, OOO is a bit of a hybrid between realism and idealism. It is realist in the sense that it refuses the thesis that any entity can be reduced to what it is for our perception, cognition, language, discourse, etc. Entities have their own autonomous existence irreducible to culture and thought. However, with Kant it is idealist in that it argues that no entity ever directly encounters another entity as it is in itself, but rather every entity “distorts” other entities according to its own structure and way of processing other entities. The difference is that where Kantian idealism sees something special in the human-world relationship and how humans distort other entities such that we never have direct access to these other entities, OOO sees this phenomena as true of all entities. In other words, there’s a bat way of distorting or processing the world, a bacteria way, a rock way, a sun way, etc.
While we can never experience these other ways of experiencing the world because we, like all other entities, lack direct access to other entities, we can say something of how other entities experience the world through allusion and metaphor. I refer to this analysis of how other entities distort or rework the world as “second-order observation”. In second-order observation you’re not observing the entity, but rather you’re observing how the entity observes the world. For example, rather than observing you experience a “disabled” person such as Temple Grandin, you instead try to observe how Temple Grandin experiences the world. Likewise, Temple Grandin’s work was unique because, rather than limiting herself to what cows are for us as the traditional rancher might, she tried to observe how cows observe or experience the world so as to develop more “cow-mane” (not “humane”) ways of tending towards cows. Ian Bogost has referred to this as “alien phenomenology“, while Jakob von Uexkull, referred to it as “ethology”. Where phenomenology tries to give a description of our lived experience, alien phenomenology, second-order observation (observing how an observer observes), and ethology try to describe how other entities encounter the world.
What you thus get is a sort of pluralistic, pan-Kantianism. Where Kant privileges the transcendental, human subject and how that subject encounters the world, OOO generalizes the Kantian thesis to all entities and argues that they all encounter the world in a particular way and broaches the way towards an investigation of these other phenomenologies (and OOO hasn’t been alone in this). As a result, OOO is an anthro-de-centric framework (a term first coined, to my knowledge, by Matthew Segall at footnotes2plato). The advantages of this orientation are, I hope, obvious. First, while some of my OOO colleagues have been harsh in response to the correlationisms that dominated the 20th century such as the linguistic turn and social constructivism, OOO has more than enough theoretical resources to fully integrate these findings. We don’t lose these critiques, but, in my opinion, sublate them. Second, frameworks such as Kant’s and phenomenology are based on anthropological universals in that they generalize about how minds cognize the world and extend these to all of humanity. As gender studies, queer theory, disability studies, and ethnography, race theory, post-colonial theory, and things like the extended mind hypothesis have revealed, these claims are highly contentious. Alien phenomenology provides the means of escaping these sorts of illicit generalizations and cultivates a greater sensitivity to differences among peoples. Third, alien phenomenology helps us to escape our Ptolemacism, opening us to a world of other beings such as the worlds of other animals, climates, ecosystems, technologies, etc., and how they experience or encounter the world. In my view, the real enemy is not so much idealism or correlationism, but human exceptionalism or anthropocentrism.
Here then it becomes necessary to distinguish between two different types of realisms. On the one hand, there is what I’ve called epistempological realism, while on the other hand there’s ontological realism. Epistemological realism is the thesis that we somehow have direct access to the world and that our representations represent other entities in the world as they are. Insofar as OOO argues that no entity has direct access to another entity, it follows that OOOers cannot be epistemological realists. This is why there’s something of a debate between the scientism of an SR theorist like Brassier and OOO. Brassier is an epistemological realist, whereas OOO is epistemologically anti-realist. Ontological realism, by contrast, argues that no entity can be reduced to its representation by another entity. The OOO thesis is that there is always something of an entity that exceeds and escapes how it is represented, perceived, talked about, related to, contextualized, etc. There is always something of every entity that escapes the observer. Here we see, again, something of the Kantian legacy of OOO. Just as Kant endlessly argued that the in-itself can never be reduced to the phenomenal world, that there is always something enigmatic in phenomena that escapes givenness and phenomenalization, OOO argues that there is always something of an entity that escapes how it is grasped or related to other entities. If OOO has vigorously fought ontological perspectivisms, for example– the thesis that beings are how they are perceived by other entities –this has not been on the grounds that we have direct access to entities and can “know” them as they are– quite the reverse –but because we refuse that gesture whereby any entity could be reduced to how it is grasped or accessed by other entities. In this regard, OOO aims at ontological humility, not mastery and representation. As Morton has put it, every entity is a strange stranger for all other entities. We can say something of what things might be like for other entities and thereby generate more compassionate regard for them, but we will never fully plumb their depths, nor will we have these experiences for ourselves.
The issue of materialism is vexed and contentious within OOO. Within my own framework– “MOO”, or “machine-oriented ontology” –I attempt to articulate a strict materialism. Here materialism consists in the thesis that only material beings, beings made of “stuff” exist. These entities exist, I argue, at a variety of levels of scale (emergence), and there is nothing outside the flux of history, becoming, and material relation, i.e., two entities must touch in some way for there to be an interaction between them. As a consequence, I reject the existence of things such as Platonic forms that are defined by intelligibility and that are outside of “history” or material processes. Harman’s OOP (object-oriented philosophy), by contrast, leaves open the possibility that there might be immaterial objects, and would thus be sympathetic to Platonic realism that asserts the existence of universals that exist over and above material entities. Anyway, enough for now.