Guerrillas In The Mist

Peter Wolfendale, Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes

Urbanomic, 458pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780957529595

reviewed by Dominic Fox

An alternative title for Pete Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes might have been A Defence of Philosophy; for what Wolfendale has written, in the form of a polemic against the ‘Object-Oriented Philosophy’ of Graham Harman, is a repudiation that unfolds into a systematic explication of Wolfendale’s own philosophical commitments. It is ultimately a defence of philosophical seriousness, of a particular way of holding such commitments and consenting to be bound by them. Over and above the explicit arguments of the book, Wolfendale makes his point concretely by being serious, by enacting the kind of rigorous tenacity he believes philosophical argumentation to require. Indeed, the jacket proudly exhibits a quotation from Harman himself, declaring that ‘the man is relentless.’

What is Object-Oriented Philosophy (henceforth OOP), that serious philosophy should stand in need of such a defence against it? Briefly: Harman elaborates a metaphysical system in which the singleness and separateness of objects is a first-class fact, rather than the derived outcome of some primary process of individuation, or a mere facet of some overarching system of relations. Objects are not reified bits of a fundamentally fluid and relational reality: objects are what there are. The identity of an object resides neither in its surface properties, nor in its patterns of interaction with other parts of the world, but in its withdrawal from interaction, its inexhaustible capacity for being other than what it is taken for.

Taking as his point of departure Heidegger’s tool analysis in Being and Time (1927), Harman sets out to show that the being of objects is their tool-being, their combined capacity for function and malfunction. An object is both what it does, and what it is when it declines to do that thing. One of the wider claims made for OOP is that it delivers philosophy from the clutches of correlationism, the insistence that the objects of thought are inseparably bound up with the ideational gestures through which they are apprehended. For the correlationist, it is senseless to try to talk about an intentional object – a tree, say – as existing independently of my having some notion of ‘treeness’, pointing at a tree, saying ‘look, a tree’ and so on: it is my activity and disposition tree-wards that make the tree the ‘tree’ that it is, which is a tree ‘for me’ rather than a tree ‘in itself’. By contrast with this view, the ‘withdrawn’ objects of OOP are nothing if not independent – to the point of being, in Harman’s phrase, causally ‘vacuum-sealed’. The great promise of OOP is that a non-correlationist philosophy can begin once again to talk about the ‘great outdoors’ beyond the confines of the human-world relation; about things as they are independently of their relationship to us, or ours to them.

There is something undeniably attractive about this promise, and the burden of Wolfendale’s argument is to show that OOP as parlayed by Harman cannot deliver on it. Instead, Wolfendale claims, Harman is merely an eccentric correlationist, who promises the world but gives us only a panoply of gestures, a masquerade of allusions in which the possibility of making any true statement about the world is permanently withheld. The theme of ‘withdrawal’ cuts both ways, upholding the mind-independence of objects but at the cost of leaving them as ultimately mind-inaccessible as the ineffable Kantian noumenon.

Object-Oriented Philosophy is an arrestingly total polemic: it aims not so much to drive an opponent from the field, as to define the field in such a way as to exclude the possibility that the opponent can ever legitimately be said to have occupied it. In a sense, then, such a polemic aims at its own redundancy: it can only succeed by showing that it would have been a mistake ever to have taken seriously the menace that it sets out to combat. Wolfendale notes this paradox in his introduction. What does it mean to take so seriously something that is not worth taking seriously?

A joke from the late Bob Monkhouse’s stand-up routine comes to mind. Slowing the pace of his delivery, Monkhouse would begin an intimate reminiscence on the highs and lows of his long career, talking candidly about its pleasures and regrets, drawing the audience into his confidence. Finally he would declare that, after all is said and done, the key to success in showbusiness is sincerity: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. The thrust of Wolfendale’s attack on Harman is that Harman is never able to accomplish the ‘sincerity’ he promotes as a philosophical value; that he, like Monkhouse, is ultimately a successful faker. But the sting in the tail of Monkhouse’s routine is that it raises the question of whether there can ever be more to sincerity than the successful performance of sincerity. Is philosophical seriousness anything more than a routine, a way of carrying on? In other words, is it seriousness about something – and is it possible to establish with any certainty what this something is?

In order to say what is wrong with Harman, Wolfendale must offer answers to questions such as ‘what is metaphysics anyway?’, and these answers in turn call on critical synopses of other philosophical positions, from Quine to Deleuze. It must be said that Quine and Deleuze make a fairly unusual combination, indicative of the breadth of Wolfendale’s ambition: he must syncretise widely, in order to anathematise completely. What Quine and Deleuze have in common, on Wolfendale’s reading, is not any particular shared position, but the fact of their having engaged methodically with foundational philosophical questions. That is not to say that either is a ‘foundationalist’, but that each builds up a conceptual infrastructure around their positive assertions, making explicit the scaffolding of inference that supports them. (A ‘foundationalist’ would be someone who believed that the ‘right’ scaffolding would both irrevocably ground and unequivocally determine the scaffolded structure: get the rudiments unarguably right, and everything else unarguably follows. It's important to understand that this is not Wolfendale's program, although the depth to which he pursues his background investigations may sometimes suggest a longing for security).

What distinguishes properly philosophical metaphysics from untethered metaphysical speculation is precisely this activity of attempting to account for the where one is coming from: ‘making it explicit’, in Robert Brandom's phrase. Wolfendale is enthusiastically Brandomian in his approach, and his reproach towards Harman is often that the latter leaves implicit, and dangerously murky, what ought to be drawn out methodically. Much time is accordingly spent attempting to ‘reconstruct’ the implicit commitments motivating Harman's explicit statements, in order to give as consistent a picture as possible of Harman's system qua system – a kind of philosophical re-inflation. Wolfendale’s method is to draw out and exhibit the inconsistencies of the resulting chimera, which is more than once likened to a ‘train wreck’.

Does Wolfendale succeed? A successful polemic should cause its target some consternation: no better payoff can be imagined than one’s opponent clutching their hand to their chest and exclaiming ‘damn! You got me there!’ But I think what his book demonstrates above all is that he and Harman have fundamentally different conceptions of what philosophy is, and should be. For Wolfendale, what is at stake is the capacity of reason to organise reference, to line up pointers to the world in such a way that reliable inferences can be drawn about what it is like. If we cannot do this, then the meaningfulness of scientific statements about the world is fatally compromised, since their sense depends on their referential appropriateness and inferential consistency. The kind of ‘sincerity’ that most concerns Wolfendale is the ability to say something like ‘the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is increasing due to human activity,’ and mean just that, without any further qualifications of the ‘X is Y for us’ variety. For Harman, an object’s sensual projection of itself towards other objects (including ‘us’) is a matter of allure, and our powers of description with respect to objects are accordingly powers of allusion. ‘Sincerity’ is the ability to take an object on the terms on which it is offered to us, to be absorbed in an aesthetic relationship towards something that necessarily eludes ideational capture. Philosophy should be concerned not with the organisation of reference, but with the enlargement of our capacity for absorption, our ability to be ‘taken in’. A ‘guerilla metaphysics’ like Harman’s accordingly does not aim to assemble a methodically-justified system, but to provide footholds for speculative ascent, generative of fresh occasions for absorption.

In taking OOP seriously enough to attempt a comprehensive rebuttal, Wolfendale has effectively been ‘taken in’ by it, drawn into a relationship of sincere absorption in a surface whose rational kernel remains elusive, to the point where any attempt to assemble a consistent account of its underlying premises results in ruinous disappointment. In short, Object-Oriented Philosophy acts as an object for Object-Oriented Philosophy. In labouring to construct a rational apparatus that can evaluate and ultimately reject this object, Wolfendale has produced a distinct work of philosophical summation that finally stands brilliantly apart from its ostensible occasion.