The Quadruple Object

Dec 29th, 2012 | By | Category: Book News

quadruplecoverThis book first appeared in French as L’Objet quadruple: Une métaphysique des choses après Heidegger (Paris: PUF, 2010), in a fine translation by Olivier Dubouclez of Lille. The history of the project shaped the very structure of the book, and may be of interest to the reader.

For several years Quentin Meillassoux had expressed the wish to see some of my work appear in French. His initial hope was to encourage someone to translate my first book, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002). But to publishers in Paris this could only sound like a costly commitment to an author not yet well known in France. Even after Meillassoux himself became co-editor of the Métaphysique series at PUF, the situation looked discouraging. For a time the project seemed out of reach.

One day, the idea occurred to me of working in reverse. Rather than tracking down the funds to translate a pre-existing book, I could first find a grant and then write a new book to fit it: much like an architect bound to a specific budget and plot of land. The idea immediately excited me, given my view that ideas are strongest when shaped by the pressures of local circumstance. Not surprisingly, Meillassoux himself also saw merit in the proposal. Immediately I applied for a research grant at my home institution, the American University in Cairo. The time has not come to tell the bureaucratic adventure story of the grant process itself. Suffice it to say that the intervention of two enlightened administrators saved this book from a premature death (I have thanked them elsewhere in this book). The check was cashed in Cairo and calculations were made in Paris. Soon I was informed by Meillassoux of how long the work should be, in accordance with PUF’s standard translator salary rates. Though French publishers work according to signes rather than words, the requested length amounted to approximately 47,000 words: a nice, brisk little book. Luckily our translator was already enlisted, and Meillassoux proved correct in his assurances of Dubouclez’s skill as a philosopher, a speaker of English, and a French stylist.

But the timing was difficult. For the summer of 2009 I was already committed to a lecture in Croatia, and two lectures and a wedding in England. Thus I was left with only six weeks to write the entire book. Making a virtue of necessity, I decided to “live-blog” the writing of the book for my existing internet readership (see The presence of an audience would supply useful pressure to work hard on the book each day, with the added advantage of being able to give my graduate student readers an inside look at how books are written. From late July through the end of August I posted daily updates on my progress. For curiosity’s sake, I also timed the writing of the book, and in this way discovered that the final draft of The Quadruple Object took 86 hours and 34 minutes to complete.

In addition to constraints on the length of the book, some of its content was shaped by the nature of the audience. The French public was then almost entirely unfamiliar with my work. This meant that I needed to recapitulate the main ideas of my earlier books in such a way as to bring French readers up to speed. But there could not be too much recapitulation, or else none of my Anglophone readers would be interested in the inevitable English edition that now lies before you. In this way the unusual content of this book was born: a highly compressed version of my established ideas in the earlier chapters, with forays into new terrain towards the end of the book. I also tried to write more concisely and directly than usual, mimicking one of the bestknown strengths of elegant classical French prose. Ultimately I also deleted a few of the more bizarre jokes and images from the French version, after finding that they did not come across especially well in that language. Naturally, I have retained those passages in the English version: keep an eye out for the bigamist South Pacific cult leader.

As a philosophy blogger I often provide writing advice to students. One of the things I like to tell them is that the two biggest enemies HarmanPhotoof writing, the two worst causes of writer’s block, are nothingness and infinity. Nothingness refers to the blank paper or computer screen with which we begin; infinity is the self-imposed pressure to say something of limitless scope and significance. My way of addressing these two closely linked threats is to focus on all the constraints on a project that lie beyond my control: the rules I absolutely must follow without having chosen them, and which are obviously neither nothing nor infinite. Simply by identifying all the operative constraints on a given project, one’s room for free decision is narrowed and focused to a manageable range, and the specters of nothingness and infinity soon dissipate in the rising sun. When that happens, it becomes possible to summarize your life’s work in a mere six weeks of writing. Never have I written something as constrained by budget and audience as the book now in your hands. Nonetheless, it is a perfect distillation both of the Author’s Preface to the English Edition familiar thoughts that have occupied me for the past twenty years, and the unfamiliar ones that seem ready to occupy me for the twenty years to come.


Instead of beginning with radical doubt, we start from naiveté. What philosophy shares with the lives of scientists, bankers, and animals is that all are concerned with objects. The exact meaning of “object” will be developed in what follows, and must include those entities that are neither physical nor even real. Along with diamonds, rope, and neutrons, objects may include armies, monsters, square circles, and leagues of real and fictitious nations. All such objects must be accounted for by ontology, not merely denounced or reduced to despicable nullities. Yet despite repeated claims by both friends and critics of my work, I have never held that all objects are “equally real.” For it is false that dragons have autonomous reality in the same manner as a telephone pole. My point is not that all objects are equally real, but that they are equally objects. It is only in a wider theory that accounts for the real and unreal alike that pixies, nymphs, and utopias must be treated in the same terms as sailboats and atoms. If this approach reminds some readers of the Austrian theories of objects of the late nineteenth century (Twardowski, Meinong, Husserl) at least two major differences will appear in the course of this book: (1) objects according to my model have a fourfold structure that is drawn from Heidegger; (2) I treat causal relations between non-human objects no differently from human perception of them. But it should also be noted that I do not adopt Heidegger’s distinction between “object” (which he uses negatively) and “thing” (which he uses positively). The word “object” acquires in the Brentano School a generalizing power too valuable to be sacrificed to the cult rituals of Heideggerian terminology.

aristotleThe history of philosophy has already seen numerous theories of individual objects. Beginning with Aristotle’s primary substance, these theories lead us through Leibnizian monads, the aforementioned Austrian theories of Husserl and his rivals, and Heidegger’s fourfold “thing.” Despite my admiration for these worthy ancestors, this book does not aim at a synthesis, but at a new metaphysics able to speak of all objects and the perceptual and causal relations in which they become involved. Rejecting the post-Kantian obsession with a single relational gap between people and objects, I hold that the interaction between cotton and fire belongs on the same footing as human interaction with both cotton and fire.

Those who deny that objects are the building block of philosophy have only two basic alternatives. They can say that objects are a mere surface effect of some deeper force, so that the object is undermined. Or they can say that objects are a useless superstition in comparison with their more evident qualities or relations, so that the object is “overmined.” Let’s begin with these two critical strategies and see why they cannot succeed, and why objects must finally prevail. The reader need not fear that the result will be a boring traditional realism of atoms and billiard balls. Instead, objects as presented in this book are as strange as ghosts in a Japanese temple, or signals flashing inscrutably from the moon.

ISBN: 978-1-84694-700-1, $16.95 / £9.99, paperback, 157pp


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