Recovering the Real

Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism

Edinburgh University Press, 197pp, £19.99, ISBN 9780748684830

reviewed by Simi Freund

If you were to enquire about current trends in continental philosophy, you'd be sure to hear a lot of talk about ‘Speculative Realism’. It's only been seven years since the now famous colloquium of the same name, which took place at Goldsmiths College in 2007 and brought together the four original speculative realists (Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier and Iain Hamilton Grant). But in that time, Speculative Realism has blossomed into a veritable movement. The rapidity of its rise has been due, in no small part, to certain key players' embrace of the egalitarian, free-flowing spirit of debate to be found in new media like the blogosphere: Graham Harman and Levi Bryant stand out particularly in this respect. More generally, the partnering of many speculative realists with open-access publishers like Open Humanities Press and Re.press has meant that their work has been freely available for online consumption.

Tom Sparrow’s new book, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism, marks how far the movement has come. Sparrow stages a critique of phenomenology, hinging on his argument that it is trapped within ‘correlationism’ – a term coined by Quentin Meillassoux in his foundational After Finitude (2006). Sparrow makes a case for Speculative Realism (or ‘the new realism’) by highlighting how it enables us to break out of correlationism and thus to go where phenomenology couldn’t. To explain things a little: ‘correlationism’ expresses the idea that we are only ever able to access the correlation between thinking and being – that to grasp either of the two terms in isolation from the other would be impossible. A good correlationist would find the whole idea of ‘realism’ untenable, since the real (being) can only be accessed insofar as it is given to human thought. As such, the real ‘in itself’ is unknowable. This principle was at the heart of Kant’s transcendental philosophy, which established the idea of finitude – the idea that we are limited in what we can know by the limitations of human consciousness. In other words, we can only know what we can know, but there are doubtless things which we cannot know. Sparrow takes all this as a starting point, noting that if there is any one idea which brings all of the speculative realists together, it is their shared desire to challenge correlationism. However, since phenomenology deals only in appearances (phenomena), it is only concerned with the world as it appears to consciousness, so that phenomenology can only encounter being as a correlate of thought: in the end, it cannot escape correlationism.

This problem becomes unavoidable when phenomenologists make assertions about the real: Sparrow notes that realism, for a phenomenologist, can only ever be a version of idealism, and is in fact most closely reminiscent of Hegel’s absolute idealism. For the phenomenologist, the real or the noumenal is identical with the phenomenal and thus need not present a separate problem. The world is not split between things-as-they-appear (phenomena) and things-in-themselves (noumena), but only consists of the former: the real is only accessible as a ‘real-for-us’. Sparrow contends that any claim to realism which seeks to mask this implicitly idealist position is a ‘counterfeit realism’, and he considers this ‘counterfeit realism’ to be rife within phenomenology: ‘phenomenology forsakes metaphysical realism in favour of a timid “realism” of phenomena that is nothing more than a modified version of idealism’. Arch-phenomenologist Husserl, for instance, when he claims to be able to perceive the essence of objects beneath their appearance, is still only perceiving the object as a correlate of thought. The essence which Husserl is perceiving, since it has been intuited from the object’s appearance as a phenomenon, does not necessarily have any connection to the object as it is in itself. Sparrow's particular insight is to grasp how an implicit correlationism leads Husserl into a contradictory position: how ‘Husserl is at pains to show that the world’s appearance requires subjectivity, but subjectivity is not the sufficient condition for the world’s manifestation.’

This same problem is equally apparent in Heidegger, for whom ‘the disclosure of being, otherwise called phenomenological truth, is necessarily fused with a hermeneutic analysis of Dasein [human existence]’: that is, being is always and inextricably linked with Dasein it is always already being-for-us. And Merleau-Ponty was on a parallel track in his argument that ‘there is no disembodied knowledge. Our representations are always reflections, at least to some extent, of our being in the world’. For Sparrow, the point to take notice of is that any phenomenologist who claims to construct an ontology (a philosophy of being) runs into this problem again and again. Try as it might, phenomenological ontology can only ever tell us what being is like for us – it cannot get beyond the human perspective, and so the insights it can offer on how to think about being and the world can only ever be, at best, incomplete.

Sparrow is also critical of what he calls the ‘rhetoric of concreteness’ in phenomenology. This is a tendency amongst phenomenologists to give their prose a feeling of realness through the use of evocative language, which only creates the illusion of realism without actually delivering realism proper. He also refers to this, after Timothy Morton, as a ‘poetics of ambience’, something that is indeed one of the more identifiable characteristics of the phenomenological style. Detailed and often lyrical descriptions of the subjective experience of being-in-the-world have come to be recognised as distinctly phenomenological, which is why the term is often used to describe authors like Marcel Proust, WG Sebald and Karl Ove Knausgård. Yet for Sparrow, this type of poetics in phenomenology is little more than a false promise of realism, leading to a phenomenology that ‘remains bound to conjure the real rhetorically while being careful not to commit to anything more than what it accesses phenomenally.’

Yet on the other hand, and in spite of this critical stance, Sparrow also accepts that ‘it is, I think, impossible to enter the phenomenological standpoint without engaging its poetics’. So, the ‘poetics of ambience’ contributes to phenomenology's ‘counterfeit realism’, while nevertheless remaining central to it. One senses here a touch of indecisiveness on Sparrow's part - whether to admire the poetics of phenomenology or to rebuke it. Yet Sparrow is very decisive in his broader critique of phenomenology, which doesn't call time at its ‘anti-realism’. He boldly questions whether phenomenology should ever have been taken seriously as a movement at all, given its lack of a coherent methodology: ‘today, anything is called phenomenological so long as it involves some kind of subjective description of experience’.

So, on the one hand, Sparrow's case for the ‘end of phenomenology’ is that speculative realism

brings phenomenology to a close, either as a fulfilment of the hope of phenomenology or as the displacement of phenomenology as the beacon of realism in the continental tradition.

This is the definition of phenomenology’s end, focusing on the question of realism, that brings speculative realism into the discussion in the first place. On the other hand, there is also a second meaning in play, another angle to his critique: Sparrow spies another ’end’ lurking within the concept of phenomenology in the idea that it has in fact ‘always already come to an end’; that, indeed, ‘the idea of phenomenology lacks a coherent center’ and has therefore never really begun. The problem is that despite the suggestiveness of this idea, this second meaning – much more roundly dismissive of phenomenology – has little clear connection to the wider discussion of speculative realism. As a result, Sparrow's overall critique suffers from a sense of unevenness. In the preface, he notes that the book was originally intended as a ‘pamphlet-style polemic’ called Against Phenomenology, and one often feels that it might have been better off that way, or as two separate projects altogether. The decision to include the bulk of this polemic in the book means that it often ends up reading like two works bolted onto one another: a critique of phenomenology and an introduction to speculative realism.

It's difficult not to praise Sparrow’s ambition. By introducing speculative realism, he attempts to cover eight thinkers in less than 100 pages. Yet the reality of this is a different kind of unevenness: whilst Meillassoux and Harman receive a chapter each, the remaining six thinkers are discussed very briefly. Sparrow himself seems aware of the shortcomings:

…for all the points of commonality between the second wave of object-oriented thinkers [followers of Graham Harman], there are notable points of disagreement. Unfortunately, these divergences are largely passed over in silence in what follows.

The problem is that his discussion of the other six thinkers can offer only a taster of their thought, without giving the reader enough meat to make any kind of assessment of it. It doesn't help, of course, that many of these philosophers pride themselves on offering unusual, often counter-intuitive ontologies, but even so, the brief and sometimes cursory nature of Sparrow’s discussion might not have been a problem if his book were simply a short introduction to speculative realism. However, given the boldness of its central claim – that speculative realism is ready to replace phenomenology – this short discussion fails to convince. Though he makes a strong case for phenomenology’s anti-realism, he does not give an adequate account of speculative realism as ‘the beacon of realism in the continental tradition’.

It's not only when he is forced into brevity that Sparrow's arguments fall short: there are also some serious pitfalls in the more substantial chapters devoted to the philosophies of Meillassoux and Harman. There are solid introductions to the former's ‘speculative materialism’ and the latter's ‘object-oriented philosophy’, yet Sparrow's case is undermined by the fact that neither philosopher comes across as genuinely realist. In the case of Meillassoux, though After Finitude set up the possibility of encountering the real, or ‘the absolute’, Meillassoux ultimately claims that this encounter is achieved through ‘intellectual intuition’. Unfortunately, as Sparrow observes, ‘it remains to be seen how intellectual intuition will open the window to the great outdoors’. Having not yet offered an account of how intellectual intuition works, Meillassoux’s realism is at present only a belief in the possibility of realism, a speculation which can neither be proved nor disproved. We can only hope that Meillassoux will reveal more about his concept of intellectual intuition in the near future.

Whilst Meillassoux’s concept of correlationism is arguably the most influential concept in speculative realism, Harman’s object-oriented philosophy has a strong claim to being the most popular strand of the movement. Levi Bryant, Timothy Morton, and Ian Bogost were all heavily influenced by Harman, not to mention a number of artists who have absorbed the principles of his philosophy into their work. The potential pitfall in Harman’s position, with regard to realism, is to be found in his distinction between real objects and sensual objects. For Harman, real objects ‘withdraw from any relation’: in any encounter between objects (whether between humans, animals or inanimate objects), each object only interacts with a partial version of the other object(s). In a particular encounter, such as a boy kicking a ball, the boy does not experience the whole ball, but only as much of the ball as he needs to in order to kick it. For Harman, this is true of all encounters between objects – these encounters do not involve the real objects, but only these partial ‘caricatures’. In their partial form, Harman calls objects sensual objects. We therefore only ever come into contact with sensual objects. Real objects are always ‘hopelessly, absolutely invisible’.

The invisibility of real objects poses an obvious problem for Harman’s claim to realism: if real objects are invisible and unknowable then a realist ontology seems to become impossible. This is where speculation comes in for Harman:

Whilst he admits that it is not possible to know what it is like to be a nonhuman thing, whether creature or inanimate object, it is possible to gather metaphysical knowledge about them without accessing them directly.

Harman ‘proposes to deduce the primary qualities of objects from the phenomenal’. Any claims which Harman makes about real objects will thus be deductions based on the experience of the their sensual counterparts. At this point the distinction becomes blurred between the phenomenological position, which sees the real as the phenomenal, and Harman’s position, which deduces the real from the phenomenal. The two positions do not seem to be so different from one another. Certainly, in both cases the real is deduced from the phenomenal. However, Sparrow claims that ‘Harman delivers us real objects because he is free to speculate’. It seems presumptuous to suggest that speculation on the real could genuinely deliver real objects, especially given the radically withdrawn nature of the real objects which Harman describes. Sparrow goes on to suggest that phenomenology’s ‘attention to detail can draw us into the appearance of things, even if it cannot gain us admission to their hidden reality’. The implication here is that this ‘hidden reality’ is precisely what Harman’s object-oriented position can access. However, Harman is very clear about the fact that ‘nothing can unearth the object’s concealed tool-being [the real object apart from the sensual object]’. Again, the best that Harman’s philosophy can do is to speculate on the ‘object’s concealed tool-being’, to guess at it based on the way the object appears. How does this guessing work? Harman employs ‘metaphor and allusion as precise metaphysical devices’, and Sparrow observes that this is how ‘speculative realism often comes so close to speculative or science fiction’. If the extent of the real which speculative realism can deliver is comparable to ‘science fiction’, then it is difficult to see how speculative realism could become ‘the beacon of realism in the continental tradition’.

*****

In assessing Sparrow’s argument in The End of Phenomenology, it is worth noting that both Meillassoux and Harman are still relatively young and their philosophies are sure to evolve. In truth, speculative realism as a whole is also very much in its infancy, and it may yet become the ‘beacon of realism’ that Sparrow sets it up as. What he ends up proving in this book – by accident, as it were – is that speculative realism is not yet ready to assume this elevated position in the continental tradition. Sparrow’s polemical style ensures that the prose is always lively and engaging, but in the end it raises more questions than it answers, and ultimately scuppers his argument.