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  • Realism without Materialism
  • Graham Harman (bio)

After years of obsession with written texts, continental philosophy has recently raised the colorful banners of materialism and realism. The two terms are often linked by a hyphen or a slash. And yet everyone vaguely senses a difference between them, as can be detected in the more fashionable status currently occupied by materialism than by realism. This article will begin by driving an explicit and (I hope) permanent wedge between the two terms. It will conclude by asserting the minority position, exalting realism at the expense of materialism.

Nothing could be more urgent for present-day philosophy, which for two centuries has lost touch with all the specific real and fictional entities that populate the cosmos. My claim is that reality is object-oriented, and that a corresponding shift is needed from the analysis of consciousness and written words towards an ontology of dogs, trees, flames, monuments, societies, ghosts, gods, pirates, coins, and rubies. Despite appearances to the contrary, materialism can only ruin this shift. For it either undermines objects from below, reducing them downward to their material underpinnings, or it overmines them from above, reducing them upward to their appearance for human beings. Both strategies have abundant prestige, but both are disasters, since they strip objects of their autonomy and enslave them to a less worthy principle. To make this case will require some initial precision in how we define realism and materialism. Once this labor is accomplished, the reader will enjoy the spectacle of numerous past and present philosophies collapsing into one of two basic fallacies. What survives this collapse is a promising new standpoint in which the jaded and cynical human observer of recent centuries is dethroned in favor of a landscape riddled with countless mysterious entities. In this way, philosophy regains much of its ancient vigor and innocence.

1. Realism

There have been flirtations from time to time with the word "materialism" in continental philosophy. "Realism" has been less lucky. If we consider that the continental tradition arose largely from phenomenology, then the reasons for this become obvious—both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger usually express disdain for the crusty old dispute [End Page 52] between realism and anti-realism, and tend to behave as though they were positioned well beyond this distinction. But in fact, they are in no way beyond the distinction. Husserl is definitely no realist, and Heidegger at best only half a realist. Until very recently, it is safe to say that no more than three authors in continental philosophy circles openly proclaimed themselves realists. The first was Bruno Latour in 1999, with a somewhat half-hearted use of the term "realism" in Pandora's Hope, mostly for rhetorical purposes. A pair of more literal uses of the term appeared in 2002. The more famous of the two was Manuel DeLanda's Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, whose opening page proclaims realism as the central pillar of the Deleuzean philosophy that DeLanda champions and extends. Nonetheless, even DeLanda's admirers have continued to avoid embracing a realist standpoint. In the same year of 2002, realism was also proclaimed in my own debut book Tool-Being, which openly advocates a realist reading of Heidegger.

But the word "realism" means many things to many people, and for this reason I want to pinpoint what this article means by it. Lee Braver's excellent recent book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism lists six possible meanings of realism:

  1. R1. The world is independent of the mind.

  2. R2. Truth is correspondence with the world.

  3. R3. There is one true and complete description of how the world is.

  4. R4. Any statement is necessarily either true or untrue.

  5. R5. Knowledge is passive with respect to what it knows.

  6. R6. The human subject has a fixed character.

(pp. 15ff)

The list is useful, but not without problems. The first difficulty is that only one or two of the six theses give us realism in the strict sense. R2-R5 define a specific theory of knowledge that no realist ontology is obliged to defend. According to these principles: knowledge means correspondence with the world; there is one ultimate expression...


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