Graham Harman has just published a concise overview of some of the central themes of his object-oriented philosophy, in a bilingual English-German edition: THE THIRD TABLE (Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012). The English text occupies just eleven and a half pages (p4-15). The content is quite engaging as he manages to expound his ideas in the form of a response to Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous two table argument, which can be found in his book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD (available as a free download here), first published in 1928. This allows him to couch his arguments in terms of a running engagement with reductionism, in what Harman sees as its humanistic and scientistic forms. So far so good.
The problem is that Harman seems to have no clear idea of what reduction is. In effect, he presents us with an epistemological straw man supposed to exemplify the reductionism of modern physics. While ostensibly talking about Eddington’s parable of the two tables, Harman condemns the procedure of the “scientist” who, according to him, “reduces the table downward to tiny particles invisible to the eye” (THE THIRD TABLE, p6), “dissolved into rushing electric charges and other tiny elements”. He contrasts this obviously unsatisfactory procedure of reduction with the OOP’s respect for “the autonomous reality” of the table “over and above its causal components” (p7-8). He informs us that the table is an emergent whole which “has features that its various component particles do not have in isolation” (p7).
This is an important point to make, but certainly not to Eddington or to any other physicist worthy of the name. Perhaps Harman is thinking in fact of Badiou and his set-theoretic reductionism, as he further declares that “objects are not just sets of atoms” (p8). However, for any real physicist a table is an emergent structure of particles and fields of force (not just electromagnetic but also gravitational and those of the weak and strong forces) and space-time. Even Eddington speaks of the table as composed of “space pervaded … by fields of force”, “electric charges rushing about with great speed”. Harman is wrong, in my opinion, to treat these “electric charges” as if they were just particles, and he pays no attention to the mention of speed. True, Eddington does talk as well of “electric particles”, but there is a progression in the text over the notion of these particles, from which he first removes all substance (p.xvi), and which he then terms “nuclei of electric force” (p.xvii), to finally declare the notion of a particle, such as an electron, too coloured by concretistic picture thinking and needing to be replaced by mathematical symbolism:
“I can well understand that the younger minds are finding these pictures too concrete and are striving to construct the world out of Hamiltonian functions and symbols so far removed from human preconception that they do not even obey the laws of orthodox arithmetic” (p.xviii).
Thus, contrary to what Harman asserts, there is no “reduction to tiny particles”, but a redescription in terms of a complex, emergent, structure of forces and fields and regions of space-time.
I think Harman confuses reduction between different worlds with reduction inside a particular world. If scientists declared that the physicist’s table was the only real table, as Harman does with his philosophical table (he calls his third table, which can neither be known nor touched, “the only real one”) then that would be a form of reductionism. But we have seen that there is no reduction of the table to a set of tiny particles (how big is a field of force? how far does it extend? Harman is so obsessed with refuting a non-existent particle-reductionism that he does not consider these questions, and goes on to protest against an imaginary “prejudice” that maintains that “only the smallest things are real” (p8). This is precisely the picture-thinking that Eddington is eager to dispel in the physicist’s world). There is no “disintegrating” of the table into nothing but tiny electric charges or material flickerings” (p10). There is no “scientific dissolution” (p8) of the table into its component atoms, as this would be merely be bad science. To this extent, Harman’s new object-oriented ontology is just bad epistemology.