Timothy Morton

Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality

    Conclusion: A Weird Aristotle

    Graham Harman discovered a gigantic coral reef of mysterious entities beneath the Heideggerian submarine of Da-sein, which itself is operating at an ontological depth way below the choppy surface of philosophy, beset by the winds of epistemology and infested with the sharks of materialism, idealism, empiricism and most of the other -isms that have defined what is and what isn’t for the last several hundred years. At a moment when the term “ontology” was left alone like a piece of well chewed old chewing gum that no one wants to have anything to do with, object-oriented ontology (OOO) has put it back on the table. The coral reef isn’t going anywhere and once you have discovered it, you can’t un-discover it. And it seems to be teeming with strange facts. The first fact is that the entities in the reef—we call them “objects” somewhat provocatively—constitute all there is: from doughnuts to dogfish to the Dog Star to Dobermans to Snoop Dogg. People, plastic clothes pegs, piranhas and particles are all objects. And they share affinities, at this depth. There is not much of a distinction between life and non-life (as there isn’t in contemporary life science). And there is not much of a distinction between intelligence and non-intelligence (as there is in contemporary artificial intelligence theory). Many of these distinctions are made by humans, for humans (anthropocentrism).

    Causality is a zone where a certain action is taking place: heat radiates, bullets fly, armies are defeated. What action is taking place? Let us call on Alphonso Lingis: “[N]ot something that just is what it is, here and now, without mystery, but something like a quest…a tone on its way calling forth echoes and responses…water seeking its liquidity in the sunlight rippling across the cypresses in the back of the garden.” [1] If as suggested earlier there is no functional difference between substance and accidents; if there is no difference between perceiving and doing; if there is no real difference between sentience and non-sentience—then causality itself is a strange, ultimately nonlocal aesthetic phenomenon. A phenomenon, moreover, that emanates from objects themselves, wavering in front of them like the astonishingly beautiful real illusion conjured in this quotation of Lingis. Lingis’s sentence does what it says, casting a compelling, mysterious spell, the spell of causality, like a demonic force field. A real illusion: if we knew it was an illusion, if it were just an illusion, it would cease to waver. It would not be an illusion at all. We would be in the real of noncontradiction. Since it is like an illusion, we can never be sure: “What constitutes pretense…” The ambiguity of the aesthetic dimension is a radio signal from the dialetheic being of objects.

    His unwillingness to accept illusoriness might have been what pushed Heidegger into Nazism. Heidegger understands that truth is not simply making “objectively present” assertions about “objectively present” things. Truth is an event in the world, a kind of “truthing,” in which truth and untruth are coemergent: “All new discovery takes place not on the basis of complete concealment, but takes its point of departure from discoveredness in the mode of illusion. Beings look like …, that is, they are in a way already discovered, and yet they are still distorted.” [2] Heidegger descended to this ontological depth without much protective gear. He thought he had hit some kind of authentic bedrock, and in a bitterly ironic way, he had. But voyaging at these depths requires some kind of cognitive protection—this is territory that Buddhist mystics swim in, as Heidegger himself intuited. The depth could drive you crazy. Why? Because there are no guarantees. The protection that a Buddhist has at this depth is the protection of emptiness: not a hard suit of armor or tough diving gear, but a light-touch sense of the openness and illusoriness of things, without cynicism.

    Unable to tolerate illusion, Heidegger relegates it to a function of Da-sein being confused, caught in “the they” and so on. In other words, he reinvents the wheel a little: he himself reinstalls some of the “objective substance” software that got us into trouble. Despite thinking that (especially thinking that) he has gone beyond objective presence he reifies being into an authenticity that means ripping the illusion away. There is a fantasy of seeing a real underneath. In a perfect political storm, this authenticity-speak matched the authenticity-speak of Nazism. [3] This is a true tragedy, because the tunnel to the future lies through some kind of engagement with Heidegger. But his very name gives people an allergic reaction.

    Heidegger’s story is a cautionary tale about correlationism, in fact. Right after his discussion of illusion and the tearing away of illusion by authentic Da-sein, Heidegger lays out his most explicitly correlationist thought: “Newton’s laws, the law of contradiction, and any truth whatsoever, are true only as long as Da-sein is.” [4] Now to put Newton’s laws—which passed muster with a certain kind of mathematical proof—next to the Law of Noncontradiction, which is too often taken as gospel, is itself telling. It seems of a piece with the fact that Heidegger insists that he is not saying that truth is merely “subjective.” For a view of Da-sein that clung to LNC would be almost enough to get you into trouble, as we have seen. Heidegger insists that truth is not “subjective” even though it is “relative to the being of Da-sein.” [5]

    Correlationism itself only works if there is some kind of phobia of illusion. So one trajectory of correlationism culminates in Nazism. Correlationism itself is a breeding ground for Nazism, because in order to escape its paradoxes one might retreat still further into an extreme form of anthropocentrism: Da-sein is human, and German Da-sein is the best … Heidegger goes on to a brilliant critique of skepticism—has there ever actually been a real skeptic, the assumptions of dialectical critiques of skepticism notwithstanding? But it is just here that Heidegger brings up the “despair of suicide.” To be a skeptic is to have “obliterated Da-sein, and thus truth.” [6] One wants to say, as one might say to a lover who yelled a cuss word unexpectedly, “Where the heck did that come from?” One wants to say, “Wait a sec Martin. You were just saying how no ‘attunement’, no conceptual or emotional stance really ever got rid of Da-sein.” One moment we were exploring truth and the flimsiness of skepticism, the next moment the “obliteration” of truth and suicidal despair. The refutation of skepticism is too brilliant, overdone: something is overlooked—if there has never been a true skeptic on God’s good Earth, why in heaven’s name worry about suicide all of a sudden? It’s a case of overkill, a symptom of some deep anxiety about truth and illusion. Why kill something that couldn’t really exist?

    OOO provides another kind of protective gear at precisely the point of “seeing truth.” Since all causal relationships, including seeing, happen in an aesthetic dimension, there is no way at all to see the “real” thing “underneath” the illusion. Heidegger fails to see that illusoriness is where all the action is. Realist Magic has wanted to say just the same thing—in a positive sense.

    Aristotle decided that “coming-to-be” is “a change into [the] perceptible material” of an object. In turn, ceasing to be, “passing-away,” is “when there is a change into invisible material.” [7] Realist Magic has argued something that seems like the inverse. The coming to be of an object is the opening of a fresh Rift between essence and appearance. This Rift is unique, just as the object is unique. The Rift is not a void or a chasm: it is “What constitutes pretense.” It is the collapse of the Rift, not a change into invisibility, that spells the end of a thing. In death, things appear: ashes, photographs, fingernails that carry on growing, hollow grief inside another person. In a larger sense, however, Realist Magic simply places Aristotle in a wider conceptual space, yet not in a way that Aristotle would have anticipated. It is just that the positive appearance and disappearance of things happens in the sensual realm, not in some quality-free zone “beneath” it. And this is not because there are no real substances, but because indeed there are.

    Likewise, Realist Magic has situated Hume’s devastating assault on causality in a wider space. Post-Aristotelian science is indebted to Humean accounts of causation, but this raises a problem. Science that relies on probability theories lacks a theory of causality precisely since, like Hume, it is only able to say that data are statistically correlated. [8] And philosophy has since tended to view objects as bundles of qualities. [9] The reason why we only ever have associations and statistical correlations is because causality is indeed an illusion-like play of perceptions at the phenomenal level. But this is for a reason that Hume could not have grasped. The reason for the play of illusion is the existence of real objects.

    Kant transcended Hume insofar as he discovered a region of synthetic judgments that is always already in place prior to analytic judgments. These synthetic judgments are based on experience. Kant argues that there must always already have been a positing of things as … in order for the experience to take place. [10] Kant does not quite understand what he has uncovered here. [11] Realist Magic has specified that what Kant calls synthetic judgment is part of a causal space that is intrinsically aesthetic. This space only exists as an open, secret manifestation of irreducibly withdrawn objects. The Kantian Thing, then, is already an aesthetic effect, a fact that Kant’s Critique of Judgment seems to underwrite when it posits aesthetic experience as the ground of synthetic judgments. Kant ironically allows certain phenomena such as space and time to be object-like in the sense that this book describes, because they are reflexes of consciousness. They are quanta, units that are not yet divisible until some analytic machinery goes to work. [12] In Realist Magic, however, space and time are simply emergent properties of objects in general, not simply the way the “pure form of sensible intuition” (and so forth) manifests. [13] Caught in the correlationist circle, Kant was incapable of realizing that his discovery of pure consciousness could develop into a phenomenological account of intention, which would in turn be folded into Harman’s account of objects as intensely, openly-secretly themselves.

    What has happened in Realist Magic? There has been a return to a weird non-theistic Aristotle. This Aristotle was left behind at the start of the modern age, when Descartes, Newton and Leibniz (among others) broke with scholasticism. Science as we know it appeared with its rigor and doubt, based on mathematics. At the same time, epistemology became the dominant philosophical game, based again on the doubt that Descartes put at the center of his Meditations. This paved the way for the correlationism of Kant. Kant thought he had finished the job by placing traditional metaphysics on a small island of analytic judgments in the midst of a wide ocean of synthetic judgments. This event also marked the moment at which rhetoric and logic parted company, giving rise to the contemporary discourse of aesthetics. Realist Magic has returned to an Aristotle without Nature, without material and final causes, and without a Prime Mover.

    This Aristotle also does not rely on the Law of Noncontradiction. This is not only the Aristotle of formal causation, but also of the Poetics with its still misunderstood argument concerning beginning, middles and ends. Realist Magic has, like other forms of OOO, radicalized Kant by de-anthropocentrizing him. The human–world correlate is only one of trillions of thing–world correlates. In so doing, Realist Magic has bypassed the Hegelian “solution” to Kant: I cannot know the thing in itself, but here I am, thinking that, so I can. And yet, I have retained Hegel’s sense that things can be self-contradictory.

    Realist Magic has returned to Aristotle, but not out of some atavistic desire to wipe away the achievements of modernity and return to an oppressive theocratic regime. It is simply that modernity has now reached a certain limit. This limit is characterized by, to cite only too brief examples, the decisive appearance of nonhumans in human social, psychic and philosophical space. The current ecological emergency consists in this appearance. Some deep paradoxes concerning the Law of Noncontradiction have also emerged, within the very thinking of mathematics that grounds modern science (Cantor, Hilbert, Russell, Gödel, Turing). [14] The contradictory beings that this lineage of mathematics and logic discovered has necessitated an attentiveness to ways in which logic itself might need to violate LNC, the Law of Noncontradiction, especially when it comes to thinking objects. That this appears to be the case despite the founding of modern thinking upon LNC, provides more evidence that humans are now exiting the modern. Meanwhile, physics has discovered formal causation in the shape of nonlocal quantum interactions. I take these events to be symptoms of the pressure exerted by real beings on the glass window of epistemologically-inclined modern knowing.

    These beings press on the glass like the uncanny faces in a painting by the Expressionist James Ensor. They are what OOO calls objects, and it’s time to let them in—or rather, to let ourselves out.


    1. Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 29. return to text
    2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press, 1996), 204. return to text
    3. Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (London: Routledge, 2003). return to text
    4. Heidegger, Being and Time, 208. return to text
    5. Heidegger, Being and Time, 208. return to text
    6. Heidegger, Being and Time, 210. return to text
    7. Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption, tr. H.H. Joachim (forgottenbooks.org, accessed August 18, 2012), 19. return to text
    8. Judea Pearl, Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 41, 134–135. return to text
    9. Arda Denkel, Object and Property (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 37. return to text
    10. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1965), 45–48, 48–51, 71–74, 129–140. return to text
    11. Martin Heidegger, What Is a Thing? (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1967), 113–114, 128–129, 137–140, 146. return to text
    12. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 68, 69–70, 71–72, 74–75, 77–78, 201-202. return to text
    13. Heidegger, What Is a Thing?, 198–199. return to text
    14. See Heidegger, What Is a Thing?, 106–108. return to text