One of the key points of disagreement between Object-Orientated Philosophy (OOP) and Critical Realism (CR) rests on the epistemic status of the object. While OOP and CR are in agreement that, as Harman puts it on pg 2-3 of his Immaterialism, objects should be treated as a “surplus exceeding its relations, quality, and actions”, CR takes a more optimistic view of the epistemological challenge posed by this surplus.

The key issue concerns the potentiality of objects. From Harman’s perspective, CR’s concern for casual power still constitutes a form of reduction. It’s an improvement on reducing objects to their effects. But, as he writes on pg 52, it’s still reducing objects to their potential effects:

Yet this purported advance still assumes that at the end of the day, nothing matters aside from what sort of impact a thing has or might eventually have on its surrounding. This risks obscuring our view of objects in a number of ways, which not only poses an ontological problem, but has methodological consequences as well.

I maintain that some of these methodological consequences can be avoided through a sophisticated account of how those casual powers are activated. In this way, the category of ‘effects an object might have in future’ always involves reference to a variable context, raising issues of how the features of an object and the features of a context combine to produce effects.

I’m nonetheless taking his challenge seriously. I’d earlier seen his account of objects as unduly pessimistic on an epistemic level: underestimating our capacity for knowledge of the parts, their relational organisation, their ensuing qualities, their ensuing powers and how these might be expressed in different contexts. But I increasingly realise that the CR formulation I’m so used to using, ‘properties and powers’, reflects a much clearer understanding of the properties than the powers. I think the former is often subordinated to the latter, such that properties are those features of objects we invoke in order to explain their causal powers. There’s a depth to the ‘surplus’ of objects which I realise I hadn’t previously grasped, even if I’m still not entirely certain about Harman’s account of it.

It’s difficult to express quite how much I agree with the passage below. Historically, some justified objections to specific understandings of essence led to a repudiation of the concept in its entirety. As Christian Smith points out there has been a pervasive tendency within social network analysis (though I think it’s much broader than this, at least in its implicit dimensions) to construe issue of entities and relations in either/or terms whereas, instead, we might construe it in both/and terms. Many of the problems associated with the notions of essences stems from an insufficiently relational view of what an essence is. If the essence of an entity is seen to be shaped by, though not reducible to, the network of relations in which it is spatially and temporally entangled then the notion of an eternal (ontologically unchanging) or knowable (epistemically transparant) essence ceases to make sense. Conversely, without some sense of entities having characteristics beyond their relational existence, it’s difficult to even make sense of the possibility of change. The attributes of entities cannot fully explain outcomes in which they are involved but nor can the relations between entities.

if things are not purely relational, then it  also follows that things have essences. I am not the same person as you are. My individual qualities do not erupt into the world for the first time only once they have an effect on something else. I thrived in Egypt, while other expatriates gained nothing from being there; presumably there are things about me that Egypt successfully addressed, while those same traits were absent from the others. Matisse became an artist by accident at around age 21, and van Gogh even later in life. Yet it would not be nonsensical to claim that both of them had artistic gifts preceding those biographical dates, at least for a little while in advance. There is also a reason why it was Matisse and van Gogh rather than any other two people selected from their generation at random. This points to an essence, a reality in the two artists that is not exhaustively deployed in their total artistic catalogs or in their public “performativity,” no matter how unpopular essence has become in philosophy.

There are really just two problems with essence, and it is frankly not that difficult to remove them from your metaphysics while keeping the term “essence.”

1. The idea that the essence can be known. In other words, there is no political problem when we simply speak of “the Arab world.” The political problem comes from thinking that a certain elite group of Orientalist scholars from Oxford and Cambridge can identify the features of that Arab world, and use those features to proclaim that it is essentially Arab to be undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, disorganized, and so forth. This would be an attempt to identify the essence of the Arabs with certain tangibly determinable traits, most of them negative. But in a philosophy like mine, the essence of the Arabs is no more knowable than the essence of van Gogh, a cat, a table, or a neutron. Orientalism results not from calling the Arabs dark and mysterious, but quite the opposite— it comes from explicitly identifying them as undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, and disorganized. The minute you realize that everything is withdrawn from immediate access and can only be known obliquely, an automatic dose of caution and humility is injected into your knowledge.

2. The related idea that the essence is eternal is also a problem. Consider the Scandinavian people, who once produced an endless supply of ferocious Vikings, but are now often viewed as the “peaceniks” of Europe, champions of human rights and social and gender equality. Obviously, one must analyze the history here. If you were simply to say “the Scandinavians are such a civilized people,” this would be no more and no less true than saying “the Scandinavians are brutal marauders with no respect for the sanctity of monasteries.” We must recognize that Scandinavia will follow a different future path from Japan, Kenya, or Lebanon, because these places all have different cultures and histories and different aspirations. But this essence of a culture, like the essence of a person, eagle, army, or coffee mug, is not so easily pieced together from a list of explicitly proclaimed properties that one knowingly ascribes to them.

Stated more technically: metaphysical essentialism is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not.

– an interview with Graham Harman

An interview with Graham Harman:

it is especially surprising when the political Left embraces relational ontology (I am astonished that Peter Hallward defends such an ontology), because nothing is more politically reactionary than the idea that we are all exhaustively the products of our context. If I am nothing more than the logical outcome of neo-liberal, late capitalist America, then in the name of what am I supposed to rebel against it? I should instead be profoundly grateful to this system that produced me, since under a different system I would simply vanish and be replaced by a different entity defined by its different relational context. Political transformation is not supposed to be a form of suicide, but a form of liberation. And there can only be calls for liberation if there is something to be liberated— something that does not deserve to be stifled and oppressed by its currently mediocre or horrible conditions

The ostensibly revolutionary transition from consciousness to language still leaves humans in absolute command as the primary subject matter of philosophy. All that happens is that the lucid, squeaky-clean ego of phenomenology is replaced by a more troubled figure- a drifter determined by his context, unable to fully transcend the structures of his environment. In both cases, the inanimate world is left by the wayside, treated as little better than dust or rubble. When rocks collide with wood, when fire melts glass, when cosmic rays cause protons to disintegrate, we are asked to leave all of this to the physicists alone. Philosophy has gradually renounced its claim to have anything to do with the world itself. Fixated on the perilous leap between subject and object, it tells us nothing about the chasm that separates tree from root, or that dividing ligament from bone. Forfeiting all comment on the realm of objects, it sets itself up as master of a single gap between self and world, where it holds court with a never-ending sequence of paradoxes, accusations, counter-charges, partisan gangs, excommunications, and alleged renaissances.

Meanwhile, beneath this ceaseless argument, reality is churning. Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is jam-packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them; damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish, and icebergs smash into coastlines.

All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further–as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology. Will philosophy remain satisfied with not addressing any of these objects by name, so as to confine itself to a “more general” discussion of the condition of the condition of the condition of possibility of ever referring to them? Will philosophy continue to lump together monkeys, tornadoes, diamonds, and oil under the single heading of that-which-lies-outside? Or is there some possibility of an object-oriented philosophy, a sort of alchemy for describing the transformations of one entity into another, for outlining the ways in which they seduce or destroy humans and non-humans alike?

– Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Philosophy