Graham Harman

Graham Harman, Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Graham Harman (b. 1968) is a professor at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS. He is one of a handful of contemporary philosophers who are constructing the position called speculative realism—other prominent members include Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Harman’s specific position centers on what he terms Object-Oriented Ontology.

Born in Iowa City, Graham Harman attended St. John’s College, in Annapolis, Maryland, where he received his BA in 1990. Under the supervision of Alphonso Lingis at Penn State University, he received his MA in 1991. Eighth years later, Harman received his PhD from DePaul University. His doctoral dissertation, entitled Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects, was later published under the name Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (2002) and constitutes the kernel of his doctrine. In 2000, Harman became a member of the Department of Philosophy at the American University of Cairo.

Since 2002, and the publication of his doctoral dissertation, Harman has written: Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenology to Thing (2007), Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (2009), Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (2010), Circus Philosophicus (2010), The Quadruple Object (2011), Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making (2011), Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012), and Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (2013). Additionally, with Levi Bryant and Nick Srnicek, he was the editor of The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (2011). He is also the series editor of Speculative Realism, published by Edinburgh University Press, and a co-author of The Prince and the Wolf: Latour and Harman at the LSE (2011), with Bruno Latour. Aside from these publications, Harman has written and published numerous essays on twentieth-century philosophy, Speculative Realism, and Object-Oriented Ontology.

The term object-oriented philosophy was coined by Harman in his doctoral dissertation, but it was Bryant who rephrased it, and thereby gave the movement its current name, object-oriented ontology. Harman himself considers his specific position—object-oriented ontology—to belong to a larger set of philosophies grouped under the name speculative realism.

Speculative realism is a contemporary movement in philosophy that opposes itself to the most prevalent forms of post-Kantian philosophy, which it characterizes as correlationist. The name itself is taken from the first conference held to present this new philosophical position and its developments. Held at the University of London, Goldsmiths College, the conference featured the four philosophers listed above—Brassier, Grant, Meillassoux, and Harman. A second conference, entitled Speculative Realism/Speculative Materialism, was held two years later at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, UK. The name itself is credited to Brassier, although a similar term—“speculative materialism”—had already been used by Meillassoux to describe his own position.

Significant differences exist amongst speculative realists, but there is a common and unifying resistance to all philosophies of human finitude, as inspired by Kant, in both the analytic and continental tradition. Moreover, all the variants of speculative realism share a common aim of defeating both correlationism and all “philosophies of access.” The concept of correlationism was developed by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude (2010), wherein he defines it as “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” Philosophies of access, on the other hand, are grouped by the common privilege of human being—in particular their supposedly exclusive capacity for thought and understanding—over all other forms of being. According to speculative realism, both the philosophies of access and correlationism are forms of anthropocentrism. In brief, the objective of speculative realism, in all of its modalities, is to overturn certain forms of idealism dominating contemporary philosophy, which, for instance, privilege human being over other forms, and replace them with their specific form of realism.

Within speculative realism there are four primary variations, corresponding to the significant philosophical differences amongst the four primary members of the school: speculative materialism, as developed by Meillassoux; transcendental materialism or neo-vitalism, as developed by Grant; transcendental nihilism or methodological naturalism, as developed by Brassier; and object-oriented philosophy, as developed by Harman.

As mentioned above, the roots of Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy are stated in his doctoral work—Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects. Heidegger’s famous distinction, developed in Being and Time, between readiness-to-hand and presence-as-hand—or Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit—forms the basic distinction from which Harman begins. Following Heidegger, he contends that readiness-to-hand involves the withdrawal of objects from their human purposes, be they practical or theoretical, and into a reality other than that of their human use or deployment. Moreover, Harman adds that this status of being—and its fallout of withdrawal—is not exclusive to human interaction with objects, but rather, that withdrawal is a universal characteristic of being—as readiness-to-hand—in its interaction with any other object whatsoever. Harman’s ontology, in other words, is one of the object themselves, and not one wherein they are defined by practical action, or use, or networks of signification. The reality of objects—and for Harman, everything is an object—cannot ever be exhausted by any single relation or a set of relations with other objects. Otherwise stated, even the most intimate relations between objects only unlocks one another’s realities to a minimal extent—there is no deep or profound encounter or interaction between two or more objects, rather, all interaction is through the limiting status of readiness-to-hand, from which the reality of any object has always already withdrawn.

Briefly stated, object-oriented philosophy, or as Levi Bryant has renamed it, object-oriented ontology—along with the rejection of anthropocentrism and correlationism—also refuses any and all philosophies that undermine or “overmine” objects. From this framework, there are five basic principles of this philosophy: anthrodecentrism, critique of correlationism, rejection of overmining and undermining, preservation of finitude, and withdrawal. Harman’s philosophy belongs to the philosophical orientation of speculative realism, within which it is one of the four variants; within object-oriented ontology itself, there are—along with Harman’s own theory—three further variants: onticology as developed by Levi Bryant, hyperobjects as developed by Timothy Morton, and alien phenomenology by Ian Bogost.

Harman’s assumption is that the true site of philosophical thought is not to be limited to the relationship between the world and the human subject, rather, the true site of thought are objects and relations. Harman’s profound rejection of philosophies of access and all forms of anthropocentrism demands that he extend this conclusion to all object and relations, even to relations between two non-animate objects. A further consequence of this is that Harman must downplay the exceptional status of Dasein, i.e., its supposed ontological priority. In the place of being(s) defined by way of their relations and positions in the hierarchy of being, Harman proposes the concept of substances that are irreducible to both their material composition or human function and their relation to another object. In brief, Harman’s thesis is that all objects exceed every relation in which they exist, as well as the sum of all such relations.