Book Light Review: Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything by Graham Harman.

This is a first blog review in a series for books that I finish reading for professional reasons, usually within the context of my research. I call them “light reviews” because they are not meant to be comprehensive and because the book might fall outside my direct domain of expertise (information visualization, Human-Computer Interaction, Infotypography).

[link to publisher’s site]


Why I got it/read it?

The title looked promising; I’m currently interested in how people model the world, and both ontologies and theories are good examples of forms of knowledge that represent the world for the human mind. Also, I cannot generally resist buying these kind of books at one of my favourite bookstores in St Andrews: Topping and Co. (I’ll miss you!).

What did I learn?

Object-Oriented Ontology belongs to a current trend of philosophical work that calls itself “realist”. It is quite contemporary and seems very influential in other areas such as Architecture and History. OOO relates to Latour’s philosophy (I’m generally a fan), and his Actor-Network Theory. OOO addresses the issues of truth, reality (not the same thing as truth), knowledge, causation, and perception.

A key part of the intent of this theory is to remove the human/mind/cognition as a central actor of any theory of the universe. It tries to create a theory that does not depend on humans or any other thinking being to explain reality and the world. Objects relate to objects, and humans, the mind, etc. are just other types of objects. In OOO if the proverbial tree falls without anyone noticing it, definitely still fell. At the same time, in a direct line from Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy, it denies the possibility of directly knowing real objects, since these are not directly accessible (even by other real objects), and instead only relate to other real objects through other kinds of objects (sensory objects), and their qualities (real qualities and sensory qualities). From the relationships between these four types of things, OOO derives, initially quite unintuitively, but also quite convincingly (at least for me) the concepts of space, time, and a full system that explains how do we actually get to access objects (surprise: through metaphor), what we can learn about them, and also new forms of analysis.

Objects in OOO are a very generic term that includes things that are not material, or even imagined etc. For example, a commercial company is an object, Spain is an object, a dream is an object and, of course, material objects are also objects. Combination of objects are also objects. Objects not being directly accessible is provided as an explanation of why a description, formal description, or collection of properties of a real object is never going to replace the real object itself (this is connected to Ortega’s perspectivism).

I found particularly useful the developed terms of undermining and overmining. This has to do with abstraction and compositability. Other existing theories are undermining if they try to reduce objects to its components, and overminining if they try to explain everything based only on the properties that it has. OOO provides a way of defining objects as a balance between overmining and undermining.

What did I like about the book?

The book is actually quite accessible to non-philosophers, and is a good read. It is also quite good at relating OOO to existing contemporary and non-contemporary theories and philosophies, which makes me feel a bit more confident about my knowledge and gives me a useful context within the realm of theory.

What did I have trouble with?

The mechanisms of “vicarious causation”, in which objects affect other objects through the creation of intermediate objects was difficult for me to digest. I’m not sure if this is a weakness of the theory, the book, or just something that is difficult to grasp.

How it can help (with my research)?

OOO seems like a useful lens to look and understand the role of humans in the larger systems where they inhabit, without having to reduce everything to the mechanistic, reductionistic or materialistic views of contemporary hard sciences. It might be particularly useful to explain interaction and the interface (although I haven’t worked this out yet), and it might enable a nice way to reconcile results and theories from the social and humanities side of the spectrum with more formal views from math, physics, data science and cognitive science.

Open questions and other thoughts.

In some ways, the inescrutability of real objects or “objects in themselves” remind me of the identity functions (self referential) in category theory (from Maths).

Worth reading (1-5)?

For it’s potential to be useful (to me and the field), how it made me think and see things in a different light, and how it helped me learn about OOO and other bits of contemporary philosophy, I think this deserves a 5 (highly recommendable)

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