Via Bryant, I just discovered the blog Struggles with Philosophy. I’m not sure who the author is, but as Levi points out, discussion there has recently taken up Object-Oriented Ontology. Here’s an excerpt from the latest salvo.

At one level I want to differentiate between the theory (or philosophy) of OOP and the praxis of OOP, which will be designated as OOE. The former (OOP) will primarily be engaged in the philosophical discussion and theoretical debates of an object-orient approach, and the main role of OOP will be to produce Object-Oriented Ontologies. The latter (OOE) will primarily be concerned with illustrating the benefits (and limitations) of Object-Oriented Ontologies for the analysis of the experiences of the â??realâ?? world, aimming to research particular objects(or events) and how these objects act and relate to other objects. In other words, the Object-Oriented Empiricist will use (or steal) the ontologies produced in OOP and design their research projects in accordance with what object-oriented ontology they adopt.

There’s nothing objectionable to me in the above. But I did feel a discrepant twinge when I read it. After reflecting on the sensation for a bit, I think I’ve put my finger on it:

In my view, object-oriented thinking cannot avoid practice.

It’s true that many kinds of thought have latent, theoretical dimensions and active, practical ones. This is true in the sciences as much as (and probably more than) in the humanities…just ask XKCD.

Bryant reaches a similar conclusion, I think, in his post on Struggles With Philosophy’s post. Says Levi, “knowledge is a product of doing and is a discovery of doings.” But the social sciences also discover doings, yet they do so only, for the most part, in order to record or otherwise document them.

By contrast, there is something in OOO that ought to do things in a more literal sense. When my colleague Hugh Crawford teaches Walden by having his students build Thoreau’s cabin, something quite unlike traditional theory or practice is taking place.


As I’ve mentioned before (1, 2, 3), I’ve been using the name carpentry (pace Harman) to describe this intertwingled type of theory/practice. It’s a special type, I think. One not reducible to either pure thought or pure action, but one that motivates its thinking by means of action, and vice versa.

“Object-Oriented Empiricist” isn’t a bad name for that kind of practitioner, but seeing it written down makes me realize that one of the promises of OOO is that of Object Folk who ignore or destroy the theory/practice divide, rather than line up with the mathematicians or ontologists or physicists or literary critics.

The turn to objects is also a turn toward the real world (not the Real), a world full of wood and Pez dispensers and candlelight and itches. When we do so, we have an opportunity to get the “empiricism” for free, so to speak.

published March 26, 2010


  1. Levi

    Interesting stuff. I really wonder what the right words are here. I hesitate a bit with “object-oriented empiricism” because I think it risks evoking the pornographic gaze insofar as “empiricism” tends to be associated with looking. Empiricism strikes me as too passive. Object-oriented experimentalism might fair a bit better, but when I ran heavily in Deleuze circles talk of “experimentalism” always drove me up the wall because it had connotations of just pasting things together however you might like. In other words, the dimension of something like a scientific or an engineering experiment was lost. At the other end of the spectrum, too strong an association with scientific experimentation has the wrong connotations as well. For me what’s crucial is that it is in the doing, the movement, the assembling together that properties are discovered. But I haven’t yet found a word for catching that.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Yeah. I do realize that “Object Oriented Empiricism” was probably more of an off-handed suggestion than a serious position, but “empiricism” is a kind of theoretical approach, after all. The sciencey “experimentalism” is not only troublesome for the reasons you mention, but also because experimentation is also contained and artificial, in many cases. Opening a can of Diet Rite is not an experiment.

    I’m not sure how important the terms are, but they do matter to some extent. I don’t have any immediate suggestions either, beyond the ones I’ve already begun to propose, but not yet completed.

  3. Robert Jackson

    Great post Ian, this particular topic of Carpentry which you reinforce to suggest conflating the theory/practice divide is especially helpful. I wonder how you place this wider scheme of ‘working’ within the discipline of artworks, artists and aesthetics?

    I sense that artworks and artists are fairly problematic here, but perhaps aesthetics might an interesting intervention. One could posit the connotations of beholding an aesthetic object as opposed to the system based, post-formalist alternative of integration; but I think the term ‘behold’ has enough scope in its etymology to suggest this action-motivation has more use than “visual conjecture.”

  4. Ian Bogost

    Robert, I’m still working much of this out, but one signal worth following is something like this: we’re going to see more work that involves thinking with things, by making things, not for (solely) aesthetic purposes, but also for rhetorical or theoretical purposes.

  5. Mark N.

    The idea that one would make things not solely for aesthetic purposes, but also for theoretical purposes, sounds like something I’ve read almost verbatim from Joseph Kosuth, albeit in an art-specific context. Admittedly, conceptual art as a whole might subordinate the objects to the theory more than you have in mind, but I can’t help but notice a similarity of some sort, particularly when Kosuth says that art objects should be created insofar as they have a real, active role in theoretical investigations, not mainly to serve as inert aesthetic objects.

  6. Ian Bogost

    Mark, I’ll have to think about this more, because I believe that my position is quite different from that of “traditional” conceptual art, largely because conceptual art sacrifices the art for the theory (which is what you already said, I suppose).

  7. Mark N.

    Yeah, I ought to have phrased the connection as pointing out a potential point of confusion to navigate around rather than implying it was fundamentally similar to your position. The similarity is mostly at a rhetorical level: I can imagine your sentence appearing verbatim in a Kosuth essay and not seeming out of place, and can imagine conceptual artists arguing that doing-philosophy-by-making-objects is what they do.

    Admittedly, by “doing philosophy”, Kosuth at least seems to usually mean investigating the “what-is-art?” question, which is both not very object focused and pretty narrow.

  8. Robert Jackson

    @Ian – I guess we are sort of heading in the same direction, but from different angles, whilst briefly imagining different outcomes on the way. I think you are theorising a practice whereby theory is done through using and constructing objects. I would totally agree and advocate this type of practice; but I guess I’m arguing for a type of “aesthetics-in-objects-for-objects” approach. I think we’ll see an interesting implication with OOP that artworks or art objects may get eliminated altogether, but not on the account of a post-formalist conceptual focus, just the conclusion of flat ontology.

    Also, I might get a backlash here, but I’d suggest the term ‘design’? OOD? As in making for the purpose of?

    @Mark N – Its interesting you bring up Kosuth, as for me his work is synonymous with Jack Burnham, who also tried to change how we view artworks, by the poor use of software as a metaphor for a system oriented approach, coupled with a conceptual focus. In my opinion, this aesthetic logic is the complete opposite of OOP and Carpentry, and must be re-evaluated. Conceptual art = correlationism

  9. Ian Bogost

    Robert, can you clarify the “aesthetics-in-objects-for-objects” position? I think I have a guess as to what you mean, but I don’t want to respond based on guesswork.

    As for design, it might be a fine term indeed, although it has its own baggage I suppose (as does everything).

  10. Robert Jackson

    No worries; like your post, I’m still working much of this out, but by ‘aesthetics-in-objects-for-objects” I’m leaning towards the structure of Harman’s distinction between allure and sincerity, by addressing the interiors of objects in different hollow combinations. Allure is meant to save Harman’s non-relational objects from being a total monadology, by allowing them to ‘touch without touching’. But notice that in this case, aesthetics has nothing to do with the aesthetic objects which are viewed, following Heidegger’s Vorhanden, aesthetics begins with those objects which are doing the viewing or beholding.

    Sketchy I know 😎 but my AAH paper should flesh some of this out with some examples (and one big example.)