Arquivo da tag: Harman

The Battle in Philosophy: Time, Substance, and the Void – Slavoj Zizek vs. Graham Harman (Dark Ecologies)

03 Wednesday Dec 2014

In my pursuit to understand poetry and philosophy in our time I’ve found that “time” is the key: there is a great battle that has up till now been perpetrated under the auspices of subtantialist versus process philosophers – as in the recent battle over Graham Harman and Object Oriented Philosophy (a reversion to a substantive formalism, although non-Aristotelian in intent), and the Process philosophers who seem to come out of Whitehead and others. Part of the wars of speculative realism…

In Harman the object is split between a sensual (phenomenal) appendage and a real (noumenal) withdrawn core, etc. For him this real can never be described, or even known directly, but must be teased out or allured from its “volcanic” hiding place, etc. While for those like Zizek there is nothing there, even less than nothing: a void that is the negation of negation: a self-reflecting nothingness. No core, no substance, no big Other.

Graham Harman will tells us that at the heart of our era there lurks a philosophical dogma, an idealism purporting to mask itself under the rubric of deflationary realism. Under the banner of deflationary realism he will align deconstruction (Jaques Derrida), Lacanian/Hegelian dialectics (Slavoj Zizek), and every dialectical philosophy “which tries to undercut any subterranean power of the things by calling this power an “essence,” then claiming that essence is a naive abstraction unless it finds its proper place in the drama of human knowledge about the world.”1 The point he makes is that at the center of this view of the world is the notion of singular gap between the human and its world. (p. 123)

As one reads Harman’s works which on the surface seem a revisionary turn in phenomenological thinking and philosophy – especially as to its central reading of Heidegger’s concept of readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit), which “refers to objects insofar as they withdraw from human view into a dark subterranean reality that never becomes present to practical action any more than it does to theoretical awareness” (ibid. 1). This notion of a non-utilitarian realism beyond the human with its attendant swerve from the linguistic turn, dialectical materialism, and the naturalism of scientific physicalism and scientisms sets the tone: an enframing of the withdrawal of objects from the human/world bifurcation or gap ontology of deflationary realism, and a decentering of the anthropocentric world-view that pervades humanistic philosophy and literature, art and aesthetics offers the base approach of Harman’s philosophical outlay.

Objects for Harman are first of all entities as formal cause, as well as the converse notion that “every set of relations is also an entity” (p. 260). Harman will argue against all naïve materialisms and naturalisms, saying: “

What separates this model from all materialism is that I am not pampering one level of reality (that of infinitesimal particles) at the expense of all others. What is real in the cosmos are forms wrapped inside of forms, not durable specks of material that reduce everything else to derivative status. If this is “materialism,” then it is the first materialism in history to deny the existence of matter.(p. 293)

This notion that there is no physical matter, but that everything from the smallest quantum events to the largest structures in the universe are forms within forms: structured entities immersed in relations and the engines of reality. Yet, these very entities can unplug from these relations and enter into new and different engagements. The point here takes up the notion of intervention and the revisionary process of entities in their actual ongoing movements across the tiers or levels of reality. As he will tell it instead of materialism, this is perhaps a new sort of “formalism,” one that sides with Francis Bacon “who lampoons efficient causation as ridiculous.” (p. 293).

Anyone who has read the early works of Harman finds Zizek everywhere in the pages. Harman fights with Zizek from the opposite end, holding to an new or revised substantial formalism. Zizek starts with lack (Void, Gap, Den: Democritus) at the heart of things, while for Harman there is no lack – everything is fully deployed in an almost copy of the Platonic notion of time as vessel (our universe on a flat plane with multilevel tiers or scales). Zizek sticks with the whirlwind of nothings that Democritus termed “Den”: his less than nothing that gives birth to nothing and from there our universe ( a quantum theory of subjectivity as process and emergence out of the void). This is the basic battle between opposing conceptual frameworks of reality.

Harman will openly tell us he likes Zizek, yet he totally disagrees with almost everything he’s written, saying of one of Zizek’s key concepts: “

Among the most central of these ideas is Zizek’s concept of retroactive causation—a theme in one respect very close to the present book, and in another respect diametrically opposed. (p. 205)

He will tell us that Zizek’s retroactive causation brings with it the notion that the Real is not a “real world” outside of the human sphere, but the very gap between appearance and the non-appearing that is first posited by the fantasy of the human subject.(p. 207) Even a cursory reading of Zizek’s latest two magnum opus’s will attest to this continued drift (see Less Than Nothing, and Absolute Recoil). Zizek against all substantial formalisms will tell us:

This last claim should be qualified, or, rather, corrected: what is retroactively called into existence is not the “hitherto formless matter” but, precisely, matter which was well articulated before the rise of the new, and whose contours were only blurred, or became invisible , from the horizon of the new historical form— with the rise of the new form, the previous form is (mis) perceived as “hitherto formless matter,” that is, the “formlessness” itself is a retroactive effect , a violent erasure of the previous form. If one misses the retroactivity of such positing of presuppositions, one finds oneself in the ideological universe of evolutionary teleology: an ideological narrative thus emerges in which previous epochs are conceived as progressive stages or steps towards the present “civilized” epoch . This is why the retroactive positing of presuppositions is the materialist “substitute for that ‘teleology’ for which [Hegel] is ordinarily indicted.”3

The point Zizek makes is that in a dialectical process, the thing becomes “what it always already was”; that is, the “eternal essence” (or, rather, concept) of a thing is not given in advance, it emerges, forms itself in an open contingent process— the eternally past essence is a retroactive result of the dialectical process. This retroactivity is what Kant was not able to think , and Hegel himself had to work long and hard to conceptualize it. Here is how the early Hegel, still struggling to differentiate himself from the legacy of the other German Idealists, qualifies Kant’s great philosophical breakthrough: in the Kantian transcendental synthesis, “the determinateness of form is nothing but the identity of opposites.(ibid.)

As you can see at the heart of the conflict between Harman and Zizek is a notion of causation, a view of time and the implication of time’s determinations in reality. For Zizek the concept or essence does not precede its history or processual movement in time, but is rather a creation of its contingent interactions in the dialectical process of this time itself. For Harman the “essence” is that core depth of every entity. In his discussion of Zubiri on essence he will tell us: “

Zubiri allows common sense to pull off a bloodless coup d’état at the precise moment when he had begun to open our eyes to a zone of incomparable strangeness—- that of the essence withdrawn from all relation, even from brute causal relation (as overlooked by Heidegger, Levinas, and Whitehead alike).(p. 258)

This is a core notion of Harman’s that real objects (essences) can withdraw from all relations. As he will tell us further on “It is not only the case that every entity has a deeper essence—rather, every essence has a deeper essence as well” (p. 258). Realizing this leads to an infinite regress Harman will instead term it an “indefinite regress, and move on to other problems that arise from the emerging concept of substance” (p. 259). Succinctly Harman’s position is stated as follows:

I have offered the model of reality as a reversal between tool and broken tool, with the tool-being receding not just behind human awareness, but behind all relation whatsoever. This duality has been crossed by another opposition of equal power: the difference between the specific quality of a thing and its systematic union. Furthermore, the world is not split up evenly with a nation of pure tool-being on one side and a land of sheer relations on the other—every point in the cosmos is both a concealed reality and one that enters into explicit contact with others. Finally, in the strict sense, there is no such thing as a sheer “relation”; every relation turns out to be an entity in its own right. As a result, there is no cleared transcendent space that gains a distance from entities to reveal them “as” what they are. There is no exit from the density of being, no way to stand outside the brutal play of forces and vacuum-packed entities that crowd the world.(pp. 288-289).

In the above tool-being and the concept of “essence” are interchangeable. So for Harman the essence of real objects precedes its sensual appendages, and in fact for him withdraws not only from human awareness but from all relation whatsoever.

We are here back at the notion of den in Democritus: a “something cheaper than nothing,” a weird pre-ontological “something” which is less than nothing.

– Slavoj Zizek

(Badiou and Zizek from a materialist perspective also opt for a event based, non-substantive notion of time, a time of rupture and newness: an event.

Zizek recounting an Agatha Christie Jane Marple mystery in which a woman sees a murder on another passing train in which the police find no evidence, and only Mrs. Marple believes her and follows up:

This is an event at its purest and most minimal : something shocking, out of joint that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernible causes, an appearance without solid being as its foundation.

It is a manifestation of a circular structure in which the evental effect retroactively determines its causes or reasons.1

As Zizek further qualifies  an event is thus the effect that seems to exceed its causes – and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes. Already with this approximate definition, we find ourselves at the very heart of philosophy, since causality is one of the basic problems philosophy deals with: are all things connected with causal links? Does everything that exists have to be grounded in sufficient reasons? Or are there things that somehow happen out of nowhere? How, then, can philosophy help us to determine what an event – an occurrence not grounded in sufficient reasons – is and how it is possible? (Zizek, 5)

Zizek will see this as two approaches or opposing views of reality: the transcendental and the ontological or ontic. The first concerns the universal structure of how reality appears to us. Which conditions must be met for us to perceive something as really existing? ‘Transcendental’ is the philosopher’s technical term for such a frame, which defines the co-ordinates of reality – for example, the transcendental approach makes us aware that, for a scientific naturalist, only spatio-temporal material phenomena regulated by natural laws really exist, while for a premodern traditionalist, spirits and meanings are also part of reality, not only our human projections. The ontic approach, on the other hand, is concerned with reality itself, in its emergence and deployment: how did the universe come to be? Does it have a beginning and an end? What is our place in it?(Zizek, 5-6)

I’ve begun a long arduous process of tracing down this ancient battle between substantial formalists (object oriented) and non-substantive event (process) based philosophers, and have begun organizing a philosophical work around the great theme of Time that will tease out the current climate of Continental thought against this background.

In some ways I want to take up Zizek’s philosophical materialism of non-substantial self-relating nothingness vs. Harman’s substantial formalism where they intersect in the notions of Time and Causality. We’ve seen work on both of these philosophers, but have yet to see the drama they are enacting from the two world perspectives of transcendental vs. ontology and ontic, substance vs. void or gap. I think this would be a worthwhile battle to bring to light what is laying there in fragments.

Stay tuned.

1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 1). Open Court. Kindle Edition
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 4). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 6322-6330). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Stengers on emergence (BioSocieties)

BioSocieties (2014) 9, 99–104. doi:10.1057/biosoc.2013.43

Isabelle Stengers. Cosmopolitics. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 299 pp., US$25, £18.50, ISBN: 9780816656868; 9780816656875

Reviewed by Graham Harman

American University, Cairo, Egypt. E-mail:

Cosmopolitics, the major work of Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers, has been available in English since 2011 in a lucid two-volume translation by Robert Bononno. In the Anglophone world Stengers is already known as a formidable interpreter of Alfred North Whitehead, a thinker she has done so much to disseminate in the French-speaking world (Stengers, 2011). But in the present work we encounter Stengers’ own philosophical voice even more directly. Originally published in the 1990’s in seven slim French volumes, Cosmopolitics should be regarded as one of the most unique works of continental philosophy in the past several decades.

For many years, continental philosophy was attacked for its focus on purely literary and social science texts, far from the stunningly successful labors of the natural sciences. Cosmopolitics is one of several prominent recent works that have begun to reverse this trend. Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway also comes to mind (Barad, 2007), as does Manuel DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy(DeLanda, 2002), along with several books on neuroplasticity by Cathérine Malabou (2008) All of these works have had considerable influence, and they may look in retrospect like a collective turning point. Yet Cosmopolitics differs from the others in at least two respects. First, Stengers gives us a long historical narrative filled with a roster of heroes barely familiar to her philosophy readership: Lagrange, Carnot, Hamilton, Duhem, Poincaré, and de Donder among them. Second, Stengers writes as someone personally invested in this history, since she worked as a close associate of Ilya Prigogine, the celebrated Russian-born Belgian chemist. Despite receiving a Nobel Prize in 1977, Prigogine ended his career as a somewhat marginalized figure, accused of ‘delusions of grandeur’ for reasons described in haunting fashion by Stengers herself.1

What will become of Stengers’ detailed history of dynamics among her philosophically minded readers? Gilles Deleuze launched an unexpected fashion for the Stoics and Duns Scotus, to name just two of his ‘minor’ favorites. Alain Badiou has spurred a generation of young readers to learn set theory and idolize the madman-genius Cantor. Will Stengers’ Cosmopolitics provoke a comparable wave of enthusiasm for the history of dynamics? Or will it remain an intriguing dark horse of a book, left by the wayside as different paths are followed? As Stengers demonstrates in her approach to the history of physics, there is no way to predict which human works will become events that produce a tangible line of heirs. Just as Prigogine’s scientific breakthrough in 1972 could have rewritten the history of physics,2 Stengers’ lengthy treatise could lead to a new style of continental philosophy: steeped in Deleuze and Whitehead, while closely tracking the shift from Lagrangians to Hamiltonians to Niels Bohr’s model of the atom. While this may sound unlikely in view of the meager past relations between science and continental philosophy, who would have expected Cantor to become a favorite of young French philosophers? It is at least conceivable that Stengers has opened a door that other talented thinkers will enter, and this gives Cosmopolitics the refreshing air of a possible future, no matter what eventually becomes of the book.

What must now be asked is whether the elegance and historical thoroughness of Cosmopolitics go hand-in-hand with a compelling philosophical position. In her remarkably calm and even-tempered book, Stengers nonetheless shows considerable impatience with philosophers of the old style, who brandish their arrogant certainties about how the world really is. She argues instead for what she calls an “ecology of practices.” Yet this ecological program turns out to be an ontology in its own right, as open to counter-argument as any other. To zero in on Stengers’ ontology, I will focus on her concept of emergence. This is both a central philosophical theme of Cosmpolitics and a topic where she differentiates her views equally from the ‘reductionists’ and the ‘holists,’ who are presented as sharing the same basic flaw. Though it may seem difficult to extract isolated themes from such a densely interwoven work, the brief format of the present review requires that we make the attempt. Ignoring for now her critique of the notion of physical ‘states,’ and her important passing salute to Gilbert Simondon’s dismissal of fully formed individuals, we can find the core of Stengers’ concept of emergence in Chapters 13 and 14 of Cosmopolitics II. These chapters are entitled ‘The Question of Emergence’ and “The Practices of Emergence,”3 and together total just under thirty pages.

Before considering Stengers’ own views, we should place the question of emergence in philosophical context. How does something new emerge irreversibly from the old? This was a central concern of Henri Bergson a century ago, and Francophone thought since the 1960’s has often been nearly obsessed with the question of the new.4 Beyond this theme of the new arising from the old, emergence can also be framed as the question of how the large emerges from the small or the more composite from the more simple. If this never happens, if mid-sized entities are always mere aggregates of tinier authentic things, then we are left with a reductionist or even eliminativist approach to the world in which a privileged ultimate layer is treated as the sole authentic reality. Thinking would thereby become a permanent exercise isundermining: debunking illusory macroscopic beings in favor of underlying subcomponents or perhaps even a barely articulate, gelatinous mass (See Harman, 2011). Particle physics would become the chosen discipline of the gods; all others would have to accept a subordinate local status, ruled by the ultimate primacy of physics.5

Yet we must also beware of a kind of reduction that moves upwards rather than downwards – namely, the kind that I have called overmining. Instead of dissolving a thing into its constituents, we might dissolve it upward into appearances, effects, manifestations, or events, while mocking the ‘naïve realism’ that posits discrete individuals hiding behind their tangible manifestations. Or we might play the double game of doing both at once, duomining the world by appealing sometimes to ultimate particles or indeterminate flux as the bedrock of reality, and other times to an uppermost layer of the visible, the evental, or the determinate that float without a bedrock.6 What is lost through this two-faced process is the middle kingdom: the robust reality of specific things that are more than the inner relations of their parts, but less than their outer relations with their environment. Object-oriented philosophy insists on the rights of the middle kingdom, with objects protected from reduction in two directions rather than just one. From an object-oriented standpoint, how does Stengers look when it comes to the question of emergence? Is she an underminer, an overminer, a duominer, or an ally? Or does she somehow escape all of these categories, which through her act of escape would be exposed as artificial or at least non-exhaustive? Whatever the answer, this will not be an exercise in name-calling or empty labelling. Each of the terms just mentioned (undermining, overmining, duomining, object-oriented) has a precise meaning and definite philosophical consequences.

Stengers is aware that the problem of emergence has ancient metaphysical roots: “Aristotle’s disciples were already arguing about composite bodies endowed with new qualities that arose from the elements that composed them. How could these new qualitative properties be explained?” (p. 208) The standard reductive approach is exemplified by today’s most zealous materialists, who “signal a future in which, from psychology to the social sciences and therapeutic practices, all forms of knowledge concerning human behavior will be understood in terms of neuronal interactions.” (p. 209) Such materialists, of course, do not even treat neurons as the fundamental basis of the world, since they too can be explained through the workings of even tinier constituents. Neurons for them are simply a convenient, provisional, local supply base for reductive explanations of the human realm. Undermining is treated as the very business of thought, the sole legitimate method for assaulting all that is supposedly mysterious.

All resistance to such undermining must hold that something new emerges at levels higher than the physically ultimate. This approach need not come from outside the sciences. Stengers notes that the anti-mechanistic chemists of the eighteenth century “claimed there was a difference between composition, which was their problem, and the simple aggregation of physicists” (p. 209). The quarrel between reduction and anti-reduction thus became a disciplinary dispute between physicists and chemists. Here the chemists are joined by Leibniz, one of Aristotle’s greatest heirs, who “pointed out the foolishness of those who dreamed of explaining sensation, perception, and consciousness in terms of inert matter,” and in doing so “he seems to have been taking part in a quarrel that continues today with the unfortunately celebrated mind-body problem.” (p. 208) Of course, there are several different intellectual camps that might view the celebration of the mind-body problem as ‘unfortunate.’ One of these camps is that of the hardcore materialists mentioned in the previous paragraph. For them there is no mind-body problem simply because body is destined to win; mind will eventually cave in to advancing physical explanations of the brain. For a hardcore idealist such as Berkeley, by contrast, there can be no mind-body problem because mind has already won; to be is to be perceived, and there is no autonomous ‘body’ outside the configurations it displays for some human or divine mind. Against these two options, seekers in the realm of the mind-body problem at least mark a place of uncertainty, a temporary bastion against quick reductions in either direction. Given that Stengers views this bastion as ‘unfortunate’ (as I do, but for very different reasons) we will need to see how she hopes to outflank all three positions simultaneously.

A point of especial interest in Stengers’ story is the changing status of clocks, one of the most useful and earliest-perfected machines of the modern era. “The clock is a weapon against Aristotelian thought, for which matter is unintelligible as such but requires a form, with which are associated both the existence of individual beings, each of which is endowed with its own end, and the possibility of knowing them.” (p. 210) However, “in the case of the clock, matter and finality can be understood separately: consisting of inert parts, and as such subject to the laws of mechanics, it owes its clocklike existence to the genius of the maker, who has subjected those parts to their own ends, who has incorporated them into a coherent mechanism defined by a finality – telling time.” (p. 210) The question of emergence is thereby conflated with the question of purpose or final causation: “The question of finality designates the stronghold that must be defended or conquered.” (p. 210) This appeal to finality proves to be a bad move for the anti-mechanists, since Darwinian natural selection allows Richard Dawkins to replace the purposeful timekeeper with the “blind watchmaker” whose living creatures have no internal finality, but simply survive or fail to survive in the environment they happen to confront. (p. 210) By the same token, it allows Jacques Monod to dismiss final causes and say that living creatures are merely “teleonomic,” meaning that we can describe them on the basis of their aim of self-reproduction, but without metaphysical commitment to an actual finality inherent in these beings themselves. (p. 210)

And here we encounter Stengers’ impatience with both the reductionist and vitalist sides of the dispute. Locked in mutual polemic, each adopts self-defeating strategies that open up vulnerable paths to their mortal enemy. “What I want to emphasize here is that understanding the challenge to which the living being exposes the biologist is barred to the vitalist biologist just as it is to the believer in neo-Darwinism. In both cases, the polemical position is expressed by the production of an identity that is substituted for practical requirements and obligations the way a solution is substituted for a problem.” (p. 211) In other words, the neo-Darwinist defends inert mechanical matter and the vitalist defends non-mechanistic purposes, but these are both ‘identities’ that ought to give way to ‘practical requirements and obligations.’ This is the pragmatist gist of Stengers’ call for an “ecology of practices”: disputes over the nature of reality are pointless polemics that ought to be re-inscribed in the practical soil that enables the two opposite positions in the first place. We are led not to an ambiguous real world in which everything is both mechanistic and purposive, but to an ultimate human practical context in which things are neither mechanistic nor purposive, apart from the ‘requirements and obligations’ following from how the problem is posed at any given time.

Stengers cites the cases of Pasteur demonstrating the autonomy of the microorganism, Körner displaying the hexagonal structure of benzene, and Nirenberg using an artificial DNA molecule to synthesize a protein. (p. 213) Stengers’ ontological conclusions about these events might be called ‘deflationary,’ since they neither add real autonomous microorganisms, benzene molecules, and proteins to the world, nor do they shatter these things reductively into tinier components. As she puts it, “events of this kind mark the creation of new laboratory beings and the new laboratories that correspond to them. But they do not pose the problem of emergence and do not allow any reduction to occur. They mark the success of an operation of delegation.” (p. 213) The understated tone of the passage cannot mask its radical philosophical claim. For it is not just that Pasteur, Körner, and Nirnberg happened not to brush against the philosophical question of reduction and emergence. Instead, for Stengers, reduction and emergence are not legitimate philosophical problems at all. They are pseudo-problems that ought to be replaced by the true problem of how successful and unsuccessful ‘delegations’ are made. Instead of disputing over the criteria for what would or would not count as an ‘emergent’ being immune to mechanistic reduction, “it is much more interesting to point out how the operations of experimental delegation that have treated bacteria as targets or actors have been possible.” (p. 213) Is Stengers’ theory of delegation simply ‘much more interesting’ than ontological disputes over emergence, or are there more convincing grounds for dissolving those disputes into her own pragmatic theory? I for one do not share her lack of ‘interest’ in emergence, nor can I accept the concluding lesson of her Section 13: “all the confrontations that serve as ecology in the modern sciences converge around the question of emergence. Therefore, it is from this field of battle that we must escape… a practical, constructivist sense must be given to the issues covered by [the term ‘emergence’].” (p. 218; emphasis added)

We can now move to Stengers’ attempted coup de grâce in Section 14. “It is not often,” she reports, “that I have the opportunity to speak well of the work of philosophers of science.” (p. 219) Yet she now sees opportunity for praise when referring to the three-tiered model of emergence proclaimed by J.K. Feibleman. Though he starts with “a conventional definition of emergence, which associates the relation between a whole and its parts to the relation between ends and means,” (p. 219) he seems to add an extra layer to the problem. In Feibleman’s own words: “For an organization at any given level, its mechanism lies at the level below, and its purpose at the level above. This law states that for the analysis of any organization three levels are required: its own, the one below, and the one above.”7 For Stengers, the value of this model lies in its implication that “the purpose of an organization is not found in itself but is always seen from the point of view of something else.” (p. 219) This gives ammunition to her claim that the identities of whole and part must be determined in terms of “the practices that allowed those identities to be defined.” (p. 220) In the case of water, for instance, we can actually speak of two waters: “one of its identities corresponds to the chemist’s purpose in understanding it as a molecule that will interact with other molecules; the other corresponds to the purpose of understanding it as a solvent that is a liquid.” (p. 220; emphasis added) The purposes of the understanding are always what is central, hence my added italics in the passage. But even more surprising is Stengers’ brazen rewriting of “emergence” so that it dwells within the understanding itself. As she puts it, ‘ “water” had to emerge twice: as a molecule composed of ‘parts’ and as a liquid with specific properties, composed of molecules.’ (p. 220) The scare-quotes around ‘water’ and ‘parts’ in this passage should not distract us from what is happening to the non-scare-quoted “emergence.” For Stengers, the term “emergence” no longer pertains to levels of reality where something new happens independently of our understanding; instead, it is produced by that very understanding.

It certainly looks as though Stengers is simply replacing the part/whole dualism of classical disputes over emergence with a new and unimproved twofold in which a non-articulate or semi-articulate world is confronted by human scientists whose practical purposes serve to cut the world into neatly defined sections for the first time.8 Here, Stengers might answer that she does not advocate a two-leveled theory of emergence, but something more like Feibleman’s three-leveled model. Let’s consider how such a model might operate in the framework ofComsopolitics.

Stengers briefly develops her own three-level approach with the example of chemical elements. “Ever since Mendeleev,” she recounts, “the element has been a part of the chemical definition of molecules and reactions, but it presents no problem for emergence.” (p. 220) From there, Stengers goes on to describe an asymmetry between elements/molecules on the one hand and atoms on the other; I will treat ‘elements/molecules’ as a pair only because Stengers does not distinguish between them in this passage. As concerns elements/ molecules: “The chemical element, like matter in the Aristotelian sense, has no properties that could be used to define it ‘in itself.’ Its definition entails the definitions of simple and compound bodies and their reactions.” (p. 220) We will discuss this again shortly. But the case of the atom is apparently quite different: “On the other hand, the atom claims to explain the molecule the way the part explains the whole. It owes its scientific existence to practices of a very different kind, which do not address it as a chemical actor; therefore it can, unlike the element, claim a separable identity.” (p. 220) Along with elements/molecules and atoms, we also find the anticipated third level: “element and atom came to designate the same being only after a series of complicated negotiations in which data from various practices had been articulated and coadapted. And in this process of negotiation, the ‘purpose’ is found ‘above,’ on the level of the practice of negotiation itself.” (p. 220)

Though Stengers does not do all the work for us of mapping her threefold schema onto Feibleman’s triad, it is not difficult to see how she proposes to do so. Stengers’ Feiblemanian analysis runs as follows:

  1. We must consider the element/molecule on its own level. According to Stengers, this level is reminiscent of Aristotelian matter, having no properties in its own right but serving as a kind of amorphous receptacle that gains its qualities only from the levels below and above it. We should note in passing that this first level is both dubious and surprisingly innovative. It is dubious because it is by no means clear that the properties of a chemical element can be reduced either to the properties of its atoms or the uses one makes of the element. Indeed, this is one of the chief recurrent arguments of partisans of real emergence. Yet Stengers simply declares their argument irrelevant by her fiat of comparing chemical elements to ‘Aristotelian matter’ lacking intrinsic properties of their own. Yet in another sense her model is also quite innovative, since normally the defenders of matter-without-qualities place it at the very bottom of the cosmos, rather than at an intermediate level as Stengers does.
  2. Following Feibleman’s threefold method (which Stengers endorses), we must now consider the element/molecule at the level below it. In the present example, atoms are the level just below molecules. “Unlike the element,” Stengers already told us, atoms ‘[can] claim a separable identity.’ Obviously Stengers does not take this to be a permanent special feature of atoms, which (as the scientist Stengers knows even better than the chemical layman) can be analyzed downward into quarks and electrons just as easily as molecules can be analyzed into atoms. What she evidently means is that, given our momentary interest in the element/molecule as a chemical agent, and given the sub-chemical status of atoms, we can treat atoms for the moment as explanatory agents or ‘black boxes’ lacking internal articulations of their own. Certainly, we could always change our question and focus on the composition of atoms instead. But the ‘practices’ relevant to our current question allows us to treat the atom (for now) as an explainer that does not need to be explained in turn.
  3. Finally, we must consider the element/molecule at the level above it. For Stengers (there is no evidence that Feibleman would see it this way) this third level is the most important, since it is not just one among equals, but governs the very production of the difference between the other two. For as we saw, “element and atom came to designate the same being only after a series of complicated negotiations in which data from various practices had been articulated and coadapted. And in this process of negotiation, the ‘purpose’ is found ‘above,’ on the level of the practice of negotiation itself.” (p. 220) There may be three layers, but practice is the layer that rules them all.

In short, Stengers does not argue for a three-leveled theory at all, but for precisely the sort of twofold theory of which we were complaining a few pages ago. First, given that Stengers shows no traces of frank Berkeleyan idealism, she seems to concede that there is a world out there that resists our conceptions and allows for some negotiations to succeed and others to fail. That’s the first level: a world that is not just an image in our minds. And second, there is the dominant layer of praxis and negotiation that allows for the very articulation between parts and wholes in the first place. And what of the additional level that Feibleman requires – the consideration of the element/molecule (or anything else) ‘on its own level’? We recall Stengers’ rather noncommittal description of this level: “The chemical element, like matter in the Aristotelian sense, has no properties that could be used to define it ‘in itself.’ Its definition entails the definitions of simple and compound bodies and their reactions.” (p. 220) The upshot is that nothing has any qualities in its own right (here we are speaking of elements/molecules, but the same would hold for atoms, horses, balloons, persons, nations – for anything at all). A thing gains its properties either from the explanations provided by its own parts, or the ‘purposes’ that articulate it in one way rather than another.

In a word, from the standpoint of object-oriented philosophy, Stengers is a classic duominer who reduces entities simultaneously both to lower-level atoms and higher-level scientific purposes, while reserving for entities themselves nothing but the amorphous status of inarticulate Arisotelian matter, fit only to be shaped by our ‘ecology of practices.’ Reality becomes a hot potato, passed either downward to tiny pieces or upward to all-encompassing practices, but is never stationed wherever we happen to be searching for it. This is the philosophical pitfall of duomining, and I hope that the unfamiliarity of the term does not overshadow the seriousness with which I use it. For all her claims to surpass all the stale old dualistic polemics, Stengers simply shows us the most classic reflex of Western philosophy: a simultaneous reduction of the world in two separate directions rather than one, with each reduction providing an alibi for the other.


1 For Stengers’ treatment of Prigogine see Cosmopolitics II, Chapter V, Life and Artifice, pp. 105–204. For a more detailed earlier collaboration between the two, (see Prigogine and Stengers, 1984).

2 Stengers makes this claim about Prigogine in Cosmopolitics II, p. 151.

3 Stengers, Cosmopolitics II, pp. 207–233.

4 For an intriguing account of this phenomenon, see the treatment of Badiou and structuralism in Bryant (2011), p. 243 ff.

5 I have criticized this tendency in the work of James Ladyman and Ross, among others. See Harman (2010).

6 I borrow the term ‘duomining’ from the credit card industry, where it refers to the simultaneous use of data and text mining. See Harman (2013).

7 Stengers is quoting here from page 61 of Feibleman (1954).

8 The ‘human scientists’ part is slightly unfair, of course, since Stengers like Latour tries to reinterpret words such as ‘negotiate’ in non-anthropocentric terms (see her remarks on the body’s twofold treatment of water in Cosmopolitics II, p. 221). But the same ontological problems occur even if we allow non-humans to join humans in using their own purposes to carve a largely inarticulate world into pieces. See my remarks about how a global ‘relationism’ is only marginally better than a human-centered ‘correlationism’ in Harman (2009).


  1. Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  2. Bryant, L.R. (2011) The Democracy of Objects. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press.
  3. DeLanda, M. (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.
  4. Feibleman, J.K. (1954) Theory of integrative levels. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 17: 59–66. | Article |
  5. Harman, G. (2009) Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne:
  6. Harman, G. (2010) I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28(5): 772–790. | Article |
  7. Harman, G. (2011) On the undermining of objects: Grant, Bruno, and radical philosophy. In: L.R. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman (eds.)The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:
  8. Harman, G. (2013) Undermining, overmining, and duomining: A critique. In: J. Sutela (ed.) ADD Metaphysics. Aalto Finland: Aalto University Design Research Laboratory, pp. 40–51.
  9. Malabou, C. (2008) What Should We Do With Our Brain? Trans. S. Rand. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.
  10. Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I. (1984) Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam.
  11. Stengers, I. (2011) Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Trans. M. Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

About the Author

Graham Harman is Distinguished University Professor at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (2013).