Adam Robbert discusses the problem of the relation between “Harman’s object-oriented philosophy” and “the question of Science”. The solution seems to be: there is no relation at all, but if we “forget” the huge conceptual disparity between Harman’s and Latour’s philosophies then Latour can come to the aid of Harman. This is “aesthetic” surgery in a big way. The only quote he gives in support of this already very charitable reading of Harman is one from his book on Latour, PRINCE OF NETWORKS, where he enthuses over the superiority (both political and metaphysical) of Latour’s position to that of critical rationalism (typified by Socrates) and political engineering (typified by Callicles). He “enthuses” but he does not endorse, as this passage is expressed in Latourese and not in terms of Harman’s own philosophical vocabulary.
On this blog I have been giving a close analysis of a book (THE THIRD TABLE) where Harman talks about science in his own name, where he feels confident enough to contradict the Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir Arthur Eddington. He is right to do so, as I believe firmly in the necessity and utility of contributions by the ordinary citizen to debates between experts, on recondite subjects of all sorts, including that of the nature of reality, which can have an influence on the conduct of our lives. It is to be noted that Adam proceeds in the inverse direction importing an expert in science studies to supplement a notable lack in Harman’s philosophy. This salvific supplementation comes at the price of ignoring Harman’s own explicit pronouncements on science (such as the reiterated claim that the scientific object is “not real”, is an “utter sham” – no democracy here!) and also of ignoring the close reading that I have given here of THE THIRD TABLE.
What Adam Robbert does refer to, in my case, is my reconstruction of MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM’s general argument on post-badousian philosophy as applied to Harman. An argument that I translate and summarize, but that I also endorse, as my specific reading of THE THIRD TABLE confirms Kacem’s more general analysis. I think Adam gives a one-sided, or at least incomplete, presentation of Kacem’s (which is also my) thesis on Harman’s notion of the in-itself, and I would like to complete it here. Adam says:
“If—and it’s a big if—withdrawal necessitates an ontological relativism of all knowledge claims (a “flat epistemology,” to borrow a term from Terrence Blake) we would land in a shaky relativism, both in terms of the question of science and the development of knowledge in general. Clearly, this is not a desirable position to be in with regards to ethics, politics, and science. However, I think the answer to the question is, “No—withdrawal does not necessitate a flat epistemology.””
Kacem does not claim that Harman’s in-itself (not his concept of “withdrawal”, as the debate centers on degrees and types of withdrawal) necessitates relativism. He argues that Harman is caught in a two-pronged pragmatic contradiction, having to maintain both
1) the in-itself is unknowable, but OOO can nonetheless know something about it. Kacem argues that this thesis presupposes at an unconscious structural level a set theoretic type ontology, and thus the implicit primacy and historicity of science. (The primacy of set theory implies the historicity of science:”Copernicus then Galileo… reveal what will have been an in-itself previously inaccessible to human consciousness. This revelation itself of the in-itself will permit, three centuries later, the literalisation of the transfinite by Cantor”, Kacem, p134). Here Harman’s epistemology of science is vertical, enshrining, though unconsciously, the matheme as ultimate legitimation of the little that can be said philosophically.
2) the in-itself is knowable, but only by philosophical intellection and artistic allusion, all other truth-procedures, including science and politics, are relegated to the relativist status of equally illusory prehensions (this prong has as a consequence that there are no events in science that “reveal what will have been an in-itself previously inaccessible to human consciousness”, Kacem, p134, his italics. NB: this use by Kacem of the future perfect to denote a retroactive transformation of the status of unknowability of the in-itself, is central to his understanding of the science-event, but forbidden by Harman’s system). Here Harman’s epistemology of science is flat, demoting it to an instance of the general relativism of prehensions. However, by fiat, some artistic procedures are partially excluded from this relativisation. Here his more general epistemology is flat, but not smooth, as it contains some artistic lumps. But no criterion of demarcation is offered.
Kacem thinks that this dilemma can be resolved by fully accepting that the in-itself is only relatively unknowable, that withdrawal is relative. This is better than the incoherent pirouette of making the real object utterly withdraw from science, the humanities, and common sense (their objects are “utter shams”), and only partially withdraw from some philosophical and artistic practices. Harman wants to have his (withdrawn) table and eat (on) it too. So we are left with a mysterious phenomenon of degrees of withdrawal and of de-withdrawal.
Harman claims that “objects can never be caught” (THE THIRD TABLE,p12), the real object can never be “captured”. Kacem disagrees:
“the in-itself is as infinite as all the rest, and thus inexhaustible. But one cannot then decree it to be totally uncapturable, on the contrary: science does suppose this in-itself to be capturable, by definition, without which there would not be any scientific historicity, that is any historicity at all” (Kacem, p135).
He draws some interesting conclusions from this historicity of science. One of the most important is that one you acknowledge the historicity of science, once you realise that it is not a mere series of encounters with the real, once you accept that it is composed of mutations and radical conceptual reconfigurations, then you must accept what he calls an “anthropological singularisation”. More generally, he argues that the more “object-oriented” you are, the less you are able to think any singularity, whether it be that of humanity, animality, life or anything else.
The encounter of the cotton with the fire may resemble my encounter with the table, but all that is anecdote, as it cannot resemble our scientific encounter with an Earth that we now know to be round, and not flat as it was formerly thought. The transfusion of the Latourian notion of turning a heterogeneous collective into a “cosmos” will not help here, unless we accept the historicity of this cosmos (“from closed world to infinite universe”, for example):
“It does not really seem that the other animals know about the accretion of the Earth, the Neolithic, or the fact that the sky is not a vault nor is the archi-Earth flat, as we ourselves believed for such a long time” (Kacem, p137).