Andrew Cole, “The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies”

April 24, 2013

This is another nicely written article. Despite the subtitle, I didn’t find the critique to be all that harsh. What negativity is present seems to pertain to a subtext of professional dispute between Cole and some other medievalists (many of them friends of mine) who have made abundant use of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology (as in THIS FINE ANTHOLOGY). I’ll let the specialists settle those disputes, and will just briefly mention the things I liked more and less about this article.

*I’m grateful to Cole for paying attention to my essay on Chalmers, HERE, which I think is one of my better articles, but isn’t widely read.

Some of his criticisms seem wrong to me. For instance:

*He says we all ignore Fichte. I wouldn’t say that’s true at all. Meillassoux’s talk at the inaugural Speculative Realism workshop makes explicit use of Fichte, and my response to Meillassoux in the second half of Prince of Networks deals with this explicitly use just as explicitly. Iain Hamilton Grant can fairly be described as locked in a career-long polemic against Fichte. Cole’s link between Fichte and the medievals is interesting, but also quite a bit quirkier than he acknowledges (I’m all for quirky claims, having made many myself, but when you do that you can’t act like those who haven’t seen it are missing the obvious; the burden is on you to persuade).

*Cole also accuses object-oriented ontologies of ignoring pre-modern philosophy, and medieval philosophy in particular. This too is hard to understand. There is an explicit debt to Aristotle that is visible in my books (especially the pages on the Metaphysics in Tool-Being and in many positive references to the Aristotelian aspects of Leibniz). Suárez is also important to me, though that’s not very visible in my publications so far. And I’ve had an awful lot to say about medieval Islamic occasionalism.

*At times, Cole also seems to conflate my philosophy with Latour’s (though of course he is right to note Latour’s deep influence on me and others working in the object-oriented idiom). He uses Latour to show that object-oriented ontologies start by proclaiming things in themselves but end up saying that we can only talk about that which can be talked about, resulting in a univocity of being that seems to contradict any hidden things in themselves. This is all true of Latour (his is a univocity or flat ontology of actants). But Latour, unlike me, has never been remotely sympathetic to the things-in-themselves, while I have never been remotely sympathetic either to total flatness (I have two kinds of objects, after all) or to the notion that things in themselves are superfluous fictions.

*”To wit, when these new philosophies exclude the Middle Ages, they foreclose the possibilities of generous reading…” But there is no such exclusion. Cole might fairly complain that there has been no object-oriented treatise specifically devoted to medieval philosophers, but we can’t do everything at once. There is plenty of sympathy for medieval philosophy in object-oriented philosophy, certainly a lot more than can be found in most other strands of present-day continental thought.

*”The deconstructive lesson about the identity of thought and being…” Calling it a “lesson” is a way of loading the dice and saying: “As any intelligent person knows, deconstruction already demonstrated the following…” But Derrida merely asserts the point, which is not a good way to teach a lesson. (I’m not exaggerating. Try to find a passage where Derrida demonstrates “the identity of thought and being.”)

But no matter. I appreciate that Cole put the time into this, and I liked reading his prose.


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