Harman offers the following provocation over two posts this week:

Building a philosophy is more like trying to build the world’s best subway system than like trying to be an ascetic monk –or revolutionary, for that matter– standing in a lofty tower and bemoaning the filth and disease of the world. We should want more coverage for the subway network but also faster trains, better monthly plans for users, safer brake systems, more environmentally sound fuel consumption, and even aesthetically superior design in the tunnels. We also need better geological studies of the composition of the soil through which the future lines will be running.

Some partisans of realism are obsessed with couching everything in terms of science, and in some quarters mathematics. But why not engineering instead? It’s a much better analogy, in many ways.

As someone who works at an engineering school, I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that the field rules the roost in my current environment. What’s the best way to do that? Not to lament second-class citizenry and recede into malaise, but to embrace it and ask what can be learned from it. I’m with Harman here, there’s something productive to learn from engineering, even if there are also bad habits to steer clear of (the commonest is a total disregard for history in favor of technological progress).

Graham also teases a book on these and related themes, to be titled Infrastructure, which you can read more about in his post.

published September 18, 2010


  1. Tim Morton

    I thought that was a great idea.

  2. Alex Reid

    Engineering would appear to resonate with the concerns for construction/composition that Latour addresses. At the same time, Harman’s quote suggests something far more interdisciplinary, so it’s “engineering plus.” How about poetics? Sure, poetics is probably more vexed with the kinds of humanistic-corelationist problems speculative realism critiques, but there are also schools of poetics that are more convivial to SR (e.g. objectivist poetics). I’ve always thought that some poets shared more with engineers than literary critics.

  3. Robert Jackson

    Philosophy and engineering do share a relentless investment in system building.

    1. They take an enormous amount of effort to compose.

    2. They stand as self-supporting pieces of work, once enough bugs have been fixed.

    3. Once this self-supporting occurs, it seemingly appears that you can throw any input into it, and the same formal output can result. But not always.

  4. Erik Champion

    Graham Harman’s prose is impressively lucid for an academic philosopher!

    As to Metaphysics though, I wonder where that came from, not from his posts? Metaphysics is not philosophy per se (at least to me), and there seems a grey /fuzzy? area between metaphysics as route and Metaphysics as terminal..ever since that accidental confusion of Aristotle’s book labels that is. I could argue that this confusion is something Kierkegaard rebuked Hegel for (though he used the analogy of system builders watching from the ditch as their edifice of knowledge was built). Closer to home early modernist architects were inspired by engineers* and look where that got us!

    *A viewpoint of somebody who either works for Engineering/IT schools or Fine Arts-led colleges (and unfortunately for nothing in between).

  5. Ian Bogost

    Whew, I’m late to this thread.


    Right, I take Harman to suggest engineering as a frame, more like engineerifying the liberal arts, to some extent. That’s just a frame, really, not a literalism.


    The difference, perhaps, is that the systems engineers build have to work more often than the ones philosophers do. Then again, it’s not truth so much as method that’s at issue here. The engineer can’t afford to build a Wittgensteinian friction-free universe.


    I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking about metaphysics?

  6. Erik Champion

    Ian, Harman talks about philosophy in general or metaphysics in particular? The latter is your blog post titled specifically in the Harman posts so my question was merely who first mentioned metaphysics-you or Harman? And if you, were you mentioning metaphysics for a specific reason?

  7. Ian Bogost

    I was using metaphysics stylistically here, because it’s the branch of philosophy (ontology in particular) that interest Harman and me. I’m not sure why you say that metaphysics is not philosophy, unless you’re talking about the use of that term in new age/spirituality.