Recently Crispin Sartwell expressed his sympathies with the Speculative Realism movement. Now, a critic at Minds and Brains has called into question the very legitimacy and ‘maturity’ of SR. Harman replies to the critic here, and I want to echo a couple of Harman’s points.
Minds and Brains seems to be suggesting that SR’s overcoming of what Sartwell calls the ‘Kantian Nightmare’ is nothing new at all. He basically asks us to present a single figure in the twentieth century who actually denies the existence of the external world (a la Berkeley, presumably). Since no one does, presumably, realism has actually been alive and well. Harman answers this point sufficiently by pointing to the number of respondents he deals with who actually find it ‘naive’ to believe in autonomous objects. He adds the following about Merleau-Ponty:
Take Merleau-Ponty, for instance. There are good aspects to M.-P., but contrary to popular belief, he is not an especially original ontologist. Merleau-Ponty says the world looks at me just as I look at it. But that’s the very definition of correlationism. You don’t “overcome Kant” by saying that human and world always go together rather than being separate, you have to do it by no longer treating human and world as the two poles that are always in question.
Right, he’s not an original ontologist. He’s basically a quasi-dualist in the Phenomenology and a monist in The Visible and the Invisible. Sure, these are interesting instantiations of monism and dualism, but not unprecedented. There’s something Cartesian about the early text; something Spinozan about the latter. Perhaps the methodological steps are unique, but the outcome is readily inscribable into the history of philosophy.
As to the point about not denying the existence of the external world, it’s necessary to insist on this point: it is not enough just to believe in or subscribe to the existence of mind-independent objects. One must also prove they exist, or at least speculate about their existence. If one has ruled out the legitimacy of such speculation, which Kant seems very close to doing in his critique of reason, then it becomes in a sense hypocritical to posit the noumenal realm. Hegel saw this, of course, and that’s one of the reasons he wrote the Phenomenology. You can’t spill all of your ink arguing for a kind of idealism, and then simply utter your allegiance to realism as if nothing has changed. If you want your realism, then you have to earn it. The post-Kantian world is a place where it is expensive, and for a long time unfashionable, to work for realism.