I’ve been seeing a lot on Harman and capitalism and his model of causation as “nonsense” and whatnot and thought I’d try my hand at an explanation. For one, I don’t see why Harman’s model of causation is so hard to grasp but maybe its because I have a different background than most of those involved in the theory-corner of the blogosphere. I also want to stress that I’m not an object-oriented philosopher. I have serious misgivings about OOP which will be evident from my paper for Speculations. In fact, my paper will be on the subject of change and causality. That doesn’t mean however that I don’t think highly of the theory or that Harman should be insulted or attacked. Disagreements happen, we’re all adults here.
There are essentially two modes to understanding Vicarious Causation. The first is Aristotelian, the second is Kantian. It should be noted that both of these give us different versions of Occasionalism, that is, a mediated model of causality. I think the main problem people have with Harman’s theory is that they approach it strictly from the perspective of Heidegger’s tool-analysis, which while foundational for Harman’s thought has been overshadowed by a newer model of OOP over the past year. I think this this clear from lectures he’s given recently where the tool-analysis is explained but not foundational. He’s found new, better ways to ground the theory which makes it much more historically relevant and probably much easier to grasp by those without the Heideggerian or even phenomenological baggage.
In Aristotle’s Categories he distinguishes between subjects and predicates. The Greek word for “subject” is hypokeimenon (ὑποκείμενον) meaning “underlying thing.” Essentially, it is that which is predicated but remains beneath the layers of predicates. We can also understand this through substance and accidents. The substance of the thing is that which the accidents adhere to without itself becoming anything fundamentally new. My car is still a car even if I have it painted a new colour for instance. The predicate “silver” does not alter the substance “car” in any substantial way. So there are substances and there are accidents. Great. The chief occasionalist insight to be made here is through the chain of causality. The position is one that says substances don’t touch each other. Let’s use an example. When I have a relationship with a person, there is more to that person than our interactions. Let us assume it is a romantic relationship between lover and beloved. Does this relation exhaust the other’s being? Is it not the case that there is far more to the person than their relation to me? While we would likely share much of our lives with each other, there remains a fundamental gap between the two of us. Don’t we interact on the level of accidents and not substance? When I talk to or touch my girlfriend, there is always more to her than these interactions. This is also the case for my interactions with non-human objects, for instance the relationship I have to the laptop I am writing this on. There are infinite possibilities for relations within a thing, it can interact with practically anything else in the universe in any number of ways, none of which could exhaust its possibilities. This is the point of the fire and cotton example. Cotton can do a lot more than burn, and the fire only engages the cotton on that level and not on the part of the cotton (to use improper language) that could become denim or a Q-Tip. While the fire destroys the cotton, this does not mean it has exhausted those potentialities, it has simply destroyed them.
We can see then that substances don’t interact directly, but are mediated by accidents. It is not the table-being that keeps my drink from spilling but the particular arrangement and strength of the material all of which is accidental to the essence of table-being. The same is true of my use of a tool. It is never the whole being of the tool that is used but only those limited set of properties that are useful for whatever task I have planned; a screwdriver has many uses other than driving screws and could potentially do any number of things outside of the human-tool relation.
Harman remains a Kantian, though one who walks on their head. I think it was Shaviro who originally used the term “Kantianism for non-human objects” (though I could be wrong there), and this fairly accurately sums up Harman’s position. When one is taught the history of philosophy, there is usually a course on the Moderns which is presented in epistemological terms. That’s how it was during my undergraduate degree and also how it is here in Newfoundland as well. The great debates of Modern philosophy are reduced to theories of knowledge. What Harman tells us in his treatment of this period however is that what is central is not knowledge but causality. The Rationalists are all Occasionalists, where there remains at least some aspect of necessary mediation. For Descartes, it is no problem to explain how matter impacts matter, but some serious legwork has to be done to explain how mind can affect anything else. There is a fundamental split between the order of thinking and the other of material things. I have a Cartesian friend who claims Descartes can get out of this without God but I don’t buy it. God remains a necessary causal mediator. This is different for Leibniz however for whom substances remain auto-affective, that is, able to alter or change itself.
On the other hand, the Hume’s skepticism claims that causality is merely convention, a bad habit that we can’t break with for practical purposes. Kant’s great move in the history of philosophy is to unite both skepticism and occasionalism, taking from the latter the idea of causality through mediation and from the former gaining the insight that it is the human mind that does this rather than God. What is interesting to me is that both Meillassoux and Harman play the role of Kant here, uniting these same traditions that Kant did in different ways. While Meillassoux accents the Humean Principle of Factiality (any cause can have any effect, meaning anything can be other than what it is or, put another way, anything is possible), Harman accents the occasionalist point of mediation, which, when taken strictly as an epistemological point becomes the Principle of Correlation. What Harman does however is unleash it as a metaphysical principle that says all interactions are mediated in some way because all things are distinct substances unable to interact with each other.
This is where the concept of vicarious causality becomes important. What unites both the occasionalists and Kantians is the power of a single entity when it comes to mediating causality, either God or Mind. What Harman claims is that there is not logical reason for there to be simply one entity doing this, and that it is not a deficit of the human mind causing the appearance of a gap. If we unite modes 1 and 2 as presented here, the mediation of substances through accidents, along with the occasionalist model of causality, we are left with a “local” model of occasional cause. That is to say, it is not an epistemological fact that causality is mediated, but a metaphysical one. Rather than attempting to understand this through the eyes of a 20th Century Continental philosopher, we should think of it in terms of Aristotelian substance-theory mediated through the Moderns.
In Guerrilla Metaphysics and “On Vicarious Causality” Harman uses phenomenological language, drawing on the withdrawal of objects found in Heidegger and the epistemology of Husserl, but I don’t think this is necessary at all. I don’t think you need to accept phenomenology in order to accept vicarious causality (I don’t accept either, for the record). I am quite confident that an Aristotelian or a Scholastic could not only understand but accept such a theory of causality. When Harman talks of “Real Objects” versus “Sensual Objects” we can replace such language easily with substance and accidents. The sensual object I interact with is not the being of the thing, but the predicates and properties of it, all of which are accidental. When I pet my cat lying next to me, I don’t touch her cat-being, but nor do I simply touch a bundle of qualities. Rather, I touch the former through the latter, reaching the substance via the accidents. While real objects cannot touch, sensual objects can, and the latter can touch the former. That is, when I perceive a tree, I don’t see the tree-being, but a tree at a particular time of day in a particular place under particular circumstances. And yet there remains a tree underneath all of these qualities, something that is not exhausted by these circumstances and yet related to them. They are predicates of the thing without themselves being the thing.
As for all of the “head-scratching,” I think it is precisely this last point. Harman’s model of causality is decidedly pre-modern, which makes sense from the perspective of Heidegger scholarship when one takes into account his theological background, specifically his training in Scholastic philosophy. Levi’s philosophy, at least what I know if it, is rooted far more in structuralism, assuming we take structuralism as loosely as possible in its claim that what a thing means is not any positive claim, but is only a difference. A thing is not this or that. While he is a realist, it is a different kind of realism, with Harman being connected with the Aristotelian-substance tradition and Levi being connect with the Structuralism-difference tradition. Both posit a fundamental split, but they are different in kind. It only makes sense then that there would be head-scratching since they are reaching the same point (reality is made up of objects) through different claims (the heart of an object is a vacuous substance versus an object is that which is different from other objects).