Along with several others, contemporary philosopher Graham Harman has been instrumental in rekindling the thirsty brush of philosophy, igniting a new and exciting fire in this tired old field. It has become known as Speculative Realism. Harman’s work has become tremendously influential in my recent thinking, despite my not (yet) having made this influence as apparent in print as I would like.

I just learned that Harman has launched a new blog in which, among other things, he’ll be hashing through some of his thinking for a new book on “object-oriented philosophy,” a term he’s used since at least 1999, but most notably in his books Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics. The blogging philosopher. What will they think of next?

One of the gifts of this new blog is a charmingly concise entry on the very notion of “object-oriented philosophy.” In brief, but excerpted with violence:

What does it take for a philosophy to count as object-oriented? The answer is simple: individual entities must be treated as the focus of the cosmos. … But for my purposes, an object-philosophy is interesting only when it deals with rifts in the heart of objects. … If I perceive a tree, for instance, this is not just an arbitrary bundle of qualities linked by human habit and glued together with the loose nickname “tree”. Instead, the tree is a vigorous unit despite numerous changes in the angle, distance, or mood from which I view it.

Harman’s blog in general and this definition in particular reminded me of two questions I have long considered but not yet written about seriously. Brief salvos apropos of them follow.

(1) The Meaning of “Unit”

I have long been empathetic to Harman’s suggestion that objects become a primary concern of philosophy once more, partly because I found it helped me consider the notion of the “unit,” a key concept in my first book. Indeed, I make an explicit correlation between my “unit” and Harman’s “object” in the book’s first chapter.

Unit Operations is a book about interpreting creative works of all sorts as configurations of action and logic. It musters its eponymous concept almost exclusively in the interest of characterizing human acts. It privileges a representational interpretation of its eponymous concept But it need not, and I had always intended “unit operations” (the concept) to serve a much more general purpose.

“Unit” was to describe anything whatsoever, perhaps extending even further beyond Harman’s “object” by virtue of its ambiguity of sense. To cite myself:

while I include in my understanding of units ordinary objects such as the ones Harman favors (“person, hammer, chandelier, insect, or otherwise”), I also claim that units encompass the material manifestations of complex, abstract, or conceptual structures such as jealousy, racial tension, and political advocacy. When thought of in this way, units not only define people, network routers, genes, and electrical appliances, but also emotions, cultural symbols, business processes, and subjective experiences.

While I have not (yet, or significantly) expanded the concept thusly and in its own right, I believe I already laid the groundwork to do so in Unit Operations. Indeed, I tentatively suspect that the less specific notion of “unit,” with its implications of generic substance and nested condensation, has a role to play in speculative realism, perhaps in the sweaty folds between the thinking of Latour on objects (they exist only in relation) and that of Harman on objects (they are eternally separate).

An opening salvo in such a drive: objects are not just material things, but also conceptual ones. Or, the things we think are ideas are really only units. The peace accord is no better than the hammer; the pang of jealousy no better than the iron filing; the corporate valuation no better than the cornhusk. We can arrive at such an understanding not only through the reinvigoration of objects as a philosophical concern, but also by encouraging their colonization of matters previously limited to the domain of human experience.

(2) The Problem with “Object-Oriented Philosophy”

If there is something especially lurid and contemporary about the concept of an “object-oriented philosophy,” it must be the fact that it shares more than half its name with a dominant computer programming paradigm, “object-oriented programming.”

In Unit Operations I made an explicit choice to use the term “unit” over “object” so as not to confuse material things like radiators and MoonPies with software things like NSMutableArray and class employee {};. Both object and object-oriented, I reasoned, have special meaning in computer science; they act as reserved words, if you will. Since the book attempts to draw connections between the humanities and computing, I wanted to avoid unnecessary confusion.

Then and since, I’ve been secretly bothered by “object-oriented philosophy” (the name, not the idea). I was reminded of this concern when I saw that Harman had shorthanded his term with the acronym OOP, one also commonly used to refer to the programming paradigm. My worry arose not from the perception that Harman had absconded with the appellation without giving it proper credit (he has never to my knowledge noted the similarity of the terms in his writing, although I know he is aware of it) but because I feared the sense of “object-oriented” native to computer science didn’t mesh well with that of speculative realism.

To wit, an object in the computational sense:

  • describes a pattern, not a thing.
  • exists in stable relation to its properties.
  • exists in stable relation to its abilities.
  • has direct access to other objects via their properties and abilities
  • is not a real object
  • (but can be made real, e.g. on magnetic tape or as a series of instructions on a processor stack)
  • always relates to an intentional object (both because it is a designed object and because it strives to embody and enact direct modeling of the world)

Many—perhaps all—of the aspects above conflict with Harman’s understanding of objects and what it means to be oriented toward them (even if certain other properties of object-oriented programming, such as abstraction and polymorphism, might begin to approach the agitated relationship between objects and properties per Harman). The problem is one of a conflict of domains. The programmer’s understanding of “object-oriented” suggests certain ideas, ideas with tremendous cultural, commercial, and indeed hidden social influence, which conflict with the philosopher’s understanding of “object-oriented.” Unless, of course, the philosopher is also a programmer, like me.

This might seem a mere problem of rhetoric. No domain of ideas has a monopoly on terms, even if common parlance has particular ways of understanding their use. And perhaps it is just that. But even if so, a rhetorical challenge is a real one, especially given the speculative realists desire to reintroduce philosophy to ordinary life, rather than to keep it cooped up in the cages of institutions.

published January 11, 2009


  1. Jim Preston

    Hmmm…there’s a pretty good tradition of philosophy adopting movements from other disciplines. Postmodernism wandered in from the architecture department, transcendentalism was lent to us by the poetry faculty, and I seem to recall existenitalism was lifted from the theology, although it wasn’t really a movement, just a convenient term that was already in the literature that could be lifted and reshaped.

    This is the first I’ve heard of speculative realism or object-oriented philosophy, so I’ll have learn more, but I’m not sure why speculative realists would want to reintroduce philosophy to ordinary life when most of us stumble along just fine with good ol’ fashioned naive realism!

  2. Ian Bogost

    Hey Jim, glad to see you here.

    Of course you are right about philosophy’s long tradition of borrowing terms and concepts. I tried to be careful not to object to such adoption; really it doesn’t bother me as a practice. In fact, “unit operation” is a term from chemical engineering! And as Harman observed in response to my thoughts here, the problem might not bother his readership.

    However, in this case, “object-oriented” and “OOP” are names that are not entrenched in one arcane professional practice. Rather, they are fairly widespread in creative and industrial practices that touch many lives. My concern is not one of imprecision or appropriation of “object-oriented programming”, but of the potential misunderstanding of “object-oriented philosophy.” Transcendentalism means something quite similar in both poetry and philosophy; but object-oriented means something quite different in computing and philosophy.

    Part of the terrain Harman navigates, as I see it, involves rescuing philosophy from its precipices and returning it to stable ground. Even if there might be no explicit need to revise or clarify an object-oriented philosophy in light of computer science, knowing about the two should be edifying.

  3. Souvik

    Hi Ian,

    This is very interesting. I did start wondering about the link between the two OOPs when I tried to square the programming one with Harman’s philosophy as you introduced it in your presentation at Potsdam, last year. In Unit Operations, however, you already begin to draw a distinction (if i remember right) but your posting here is even more helpful.

    My issue, however, is with your use of the word ‘unit’ – the theoretical space that you see it occupying between Latour and Harman seems to me perhaps a better description of videogame telii/ actualisations than the framework drawing on Badiou, which is used in Unit Operations. Badiou challenges Deleuze (who I think provides an apposite framework) by falling into the Two despite his ‘heroic’ attempt to remain with the One. This is a reading challenged by many (see Todd May in Think Again ed. Peter Hallward) as missing out on the Deleuzian focus on immanence and how that affects the way Del conceives of multiplicities. I have written about your response to both Deleuze and Badiou elsewhere ( and at more length than i can in a blog posting.

    However, reading your latest description of how you see the ‘unit’, i thought I now see it as closer to what i believe as well. To use your own interesting metaphor, it seems now to consider both the forest and the trees whereas it was more tree and less forest in Badiou’s scheme. The count-as-one still insists on discreteness between elements as is perhaps not true for gameplays (as I argue) because of their inherent interconnectedness.

    Oh no! I have reneged on my promise not to write long comments in blogs. Nice to see you revisiting this territory. wish i had more time to ask you about your ideas at Potsdam. As i said then, despite my disagreement with your position on certain issues, Unit Operations is a key theoretical text for me because it’s one which provides the much-lacking engagement with complexity of games rather than segregate a few elements in apparently comfortable typologies.