Eric Salem on Aristotle and Harman

I just read through Eric Salem’s contribution to the new book Contemporary Encounters with Ancient Metaphysics, a chapter titled “Object and Οὐσία: Harman and Aristotle on the Being of Things.” The book has a lot of Deleuze stuff going on, including a new translation of a Deleuze essay from the early ‘60s about Lucretius. While I mainly concentrated on Eric Salem’s chapter, I would certainly recommend Adriel M. Trott’s chapter, “Does It Matter?” She asks whether the difference between form and matter in Aristotle is itself to be conceived in material or formal terms, and links this problem to sexual difference. Trott arrives at the strange conclusion that material in Aristotle is “inscribed with form” insofar as it is capable of leading to distinctions such as sexual difference. It’s an interesting reading of a work by Aristotle that I’ve never read before, and seems to have a vital materialist aspect.

The Salem essay examines the connection between Aristotle and Graham Harman from the perspective of an ancient Greek scholar. In a brief aside, Salem mentions that the problem of how to distinguish arbitrary aggregates from genuine objects is a sticking point for him about Harman’s philosophy. This actually relates to what I consider a genuine blind spot in Salem’s understanding of Harman, explained in bullet points below. Overall, though, I find the essay refreshing and vividly executed. Within the context of speculative realism commentary, it’s like coming in from an unending Edge of Tomorrow war zone to play a game of chess and drink a smoothie.

Salem manages in a short span to outline the main principles of ousia (being) in Aristotle and Harman. He draws attention to some commonalities: both philosophers are fascinated by the plurality of things around them and believe their task “is to account for the basic features of our everyday experience, not explain them away.” Also, Aristotle and Harman both prioritize unity and autonomy.

We are then presented with two major differences. The first concerns the fact that, compared with Harman, Aristotle is more “stingy” about what has genuine being. The second involves whether a thing’s inner form is intelligible (Aristotle yay, Harman nay). As Salem summarizes:

The first [difference] had to do with the number of substance-objects, whether they are limited, as Aristotle thinks, to natural wholes, or whether, as Harman thinks, they are virtually infinite. Now we see that, in spite of the striking continuity of Harman’s language with Aristotle’s, there is at least one matter in which Harman is unwilling to follow Aristotle’s lead – his claim that form at work in the thing can become form at work in the intellect of the knower.

If one got into a polemical huff, they might dream up some nitpicky qualifications about the first item, which asks whether substances “are limited, as Aristotle thinks…or whether, as Harman thinks, they are virtually infinite.” After all, why emphasize quantity (finite vs. infinite)? The number of substances in Aristotle has got to be pretty large, especially compared to some of his contemporaries, and while objects for Harman split into more objects all the way down to infinitesimals, they do not last forever or combine infinitely upward into other things. The number of entities at any given level of scale is finite for Harman. (Actually, I can’t be 100% certain about that last part; I don’t remember if Harman says it anywhere…)

Such a complaint, however, would come from a dubiously uncharitable place, since the above quote isn’t the whole story. Indeed, Salem mulls some more over the dichotomy between limited and “virtually infinite” substances. He ends up locating a deeper disagreement: Harman rejects Aristotle’s “ontic bias” about what constitutes an autonomous substance. That is, Harman believes Aristotle gives unearned priority to certain kinds of things, favoring living wholes over kidneys or houses. Aristotle prefers “nature over artifice and wholes over parts.”

Salem works through his subject matter earnestly, which makes his essay more enjoyable to read than some other critiques that I’ve been force-feeding myself lately (hence my parody of their sloppiness, above). Salem’s writing also makes it possible for readers to formulate positive and negative responses almost immediately. Maybe “chess game” was the wrong analogy earlier, since it feels collaborative (peripatetic?).

My criticisms mainly have to do with the second listed difference between Aristotle and Harman: whether the form of one object can be transferred to another, and thus whether genuine intelligibility is possible. Salem explains that for Aristotle “the intellect is pure potency, capable of becoming all things, and that when we know, we become whatever it is that we know.”

  • First, since Salem quickly zeroes in on the epistemological aspect of potential (dunamis) in Aristotle, he does not consider how potential in its own right is contentious for Harman. Harman rejects dunamis apart from its mimetic role in the intellect. Why? The answer reflects his critique of “duomining.” In Book 9 of the Metaphysics, Aristotle challenges the assertion that someone is only a builder when they’re actually building. Harman often points this out. Yet he only sometimes goes on to explain that he rejects Aristotle’s solution. His argument is that potentiality just takes out a loan against future actuality. In other words, Aristotle fundamentally agrees with the Megarians that a man is only actually X when he’s doing the work of X. Aristotle then just supplements this “overmining” version of actuality with a new “undermining” concept that allows him to say that a builder can go from the act of building to the privation of that act while still being the same person.
  • Second, Harman and Aristotle might have something more in common with regard to the mimetic aspect of the intellect than Salem suspects (thanks to Salem for drawing my attention to it!). A few years ago Harman integrated mimesis into his ontology in a “theatrical” sense that is similar to Aristotle’s mimesis (“we become whatever it is that we know”). For Harman, mimesis gets us closer to the mechanism of change in any object. (See “Materialism Is Not the Solution,” in Nordic Journal of Aesthetics 47, or Dante’s Broken Hammer, the aesthetics chapter.) The real difference between Aristotle and Harman on the topic of intelligibility is thus not the mimetic element, but the fact that Harman denies any un-distorted transfer of a thing’s being or “form” to the intellect. Hence his approval of the Latourian dictum, “no transportation without transformation.” Again, the issue for Harman is not that intelligibility is impossible but just that it entails transformation. Knowledge about whether something is an aggregate or a substantial object is certainly possible to achieve, but only indirectly and never with 100% certainty. A Shakespeare scholar can discover that the Hamlet we’ve loved all these years was just a draft, or one theater troupe can put on a 20 minute condensed version that keeps its identity while another splits it up into nonsense. This sort of complaint is usually motivated by a desire to jump directly into epistemological criteria. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason to believe this project is impossible in Harman’s philosophical universe.
  • Third and finally, Salem appears to give up a bit toward the end, and in so doing he might be missing another possible point of intersection, this one having to do with Aristotle’s proposal that each domain of inquiry has a mode of investigation proper to it. Admittedly, the similarity between Harman and Aristotle on this point is certainly not 1:1 and is clearest in Harman’s emerging political, social, and ethical theories, but I do suspect it can be gleaned from Guerrilla Metaphysics, which Salem cites.

Overall, I found the essay clear, rigorously researched, provocative in all the right ways, and refreshing. This is completely different from the standard snarky misreadings of Harman that some people have on endless loop, such as “non-relational objects equals quietism,” or “Harman is motivated by problems raised in phenomenology, so that must mean he turns everything into human psyche.” Big sigh of relief.

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