HARMAN’S CARTOGRAPHY OF REDUCTIONISM: the problem of external relations

Graham Harman’s little book, THE THIRD TABLE, gives a very clear presentation of his views on reductionism, as exemplified in the sciences and the humanities, but also in the commonsense view of the world. However his vision of science as based on the downwards reduction of everything to atomistic multiplicities and of the humanities as based on the upwards reduction of everything to expressive totalities is profoundly anachronistic. Harman’s analysis of commonsense as merely a variant of the humanistic upward reduction is even more lacunary, unfounded and unsatisfying.

The book makes it clear that Harman’s posit of the real object is based on a concept of “emergence” that is in fundamental contradiction with his concept of “withdrawal”. He attempts to hide this contradiction by propounding a doctrine based on a half-hearted combination of both concepts in the notion of the object as “autonomous unity”. This notion of autonomous unity is derived from the watering down of “withdrawal” into autonomy, and of expressive totality (block universe) into a plurality of “unities”.

Harman’s system cannot deal with relations. He constantly confronts his reader with the choice between reduction to unrelated atoms or absorption into an omni-related totality. His critique of undermining and overmining presupposes that all relations are internal, i.e. Harman has no concept of external relations. Thus Harman’s cartography of reductionism has no application to the thought of the last 150 years, and constitutes a radical conceptual regression.

For more details see my review here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Feyerabend’s “The Concept of Intelligibility in Modern Physics” (1): against unknowability

Reading PHYSICS AND PHILOSOPHY, Feyerabend’s Philosophical Papers volume 4.

After a short introduction by Stefano Gattei and Joseph Agassi giving valuable historical context, the book begins with Feyerabend’s first known paper, “The Concept of Intelligibility in Modern Physics”, which was published in 1948, when he was only 24 years old. The paper contains an argument for a realist interpretation of speculative physical theories and a critique of the doctrine of the “unknowability” of the real. It combines both ontological and epistemological considerations in a mutually reinforcing set of arguments.

The paper begins with a discussion of the impasses that arise in discussing our knowledge of the external world in terms of

the pair of concepts, real external world/phenomenon, which represents our difficulty in philosophical terms (page 4).

Feyerabend proposes to replace this problematic pair of concepts with a potentially more fruitful pair, that of “intelligible/abstract”. However, this pair seems to determine a sharp opposition, and to lead equally to an impasse, as what is abstract is often taken as less intelligible, and therefore less real, than more concrete processes and objects.

To overcome this problem, Feyerabend embarks on a consideration of the relation between simple visual models and the notion of intelligibility.

in the natural sciences, we have always sought to resolve all phenomena available to the senses into simple visual models, and in so doing to make the mechanism intelligible. Such models explain macroscopic regularity, but do not themselves require further explanation. They are immediately clear, evident, vivid (4).

Concrete and abstract, on this view, are not objective properties of our theoretical models, but represent evaluations of such models based on their degree of familiarity. In other words, they are historical concepts.

Note: we can see here already, in 1948, Feyerabend’s tendency to replace timeless essences with concepts whose application varies over time, and that need to be treated according to an historical approach. This historical approach is associated, as in his later work, with a realist interpretation of theories. One surprising feature of the text is that Feyerabend calls this realist historical approach “positivism”, whereas usually he associates this term with the opposite approach based on a-historical abstractions.

To explicate the standard concept of intelligibility, Feyerabend remarks that it corresponds to that of “vividness”. Yet vividness proves to be a complex notion, as it refers not only to a model that can readily be pictured on the basis of our immediate experience, but also to a model that can be pictured in terms of an entrenched theory that is felt to be immediately comprehensible. In both cases intelligibility is derived from familiarity.

On the standard view the intelligibility of later more abstract theories is held to depend on their resemblance to the familiar pictures we have elaborated to make sense of the objects and processes of our immediate environment and of the laws that govern their behaviour. However, Feyerabend argues against the conservativism of attempting to use present intelligibility as a criterion of acceptability of theories.

Thus a plausible theory is one that permits a “vivid rendition”:

In the case of Greek atomists, such a vivid rendition presupposes, quite primitively, that everything that happens can be traced back to collisions; whereas in the case of classical mechanics, to the motion of attracting masses. In the one case, it is a model that became plausible through the behavior of things in the immediate environment; in the other, it is a conception that comes from the regularity of planetary orbits, which was already understood (4).

Feyerabend remarks that the model of classical mechanics, which now seems so clear and evident as to be a model of intelligibility, was initially considered to be very problematic as it contained the assumption of an occult force proceding by action at a distance, which was thought to be not only implausible but unintelligible, “incomprehensible,  absurd”. The charge of absurdity, however, is no objection against the power of a theory to describe the real, and amounts only to declaring that the theory is currently unfamiliar and difficult to picture.

Laplace’s theory of capillary pressure is the best example of the extent to which the concept of intelligibility is subject to change, and how little the failure to picture a theory can be used as an argument against its content (5).

The logical conclusion is that seemingly unintelligible theories, such as relativity and quantum theory, can become intelligible if we are willing to revise our pictures and to familiarise ourselves with the new ones.There is no reason to give a realist interpretation to only to familiar theories such as atomism and classical mechanics, but to impose an instrumentalist interpretation for relativity and quantum mechanics.

But if we have successfully removed the requirement of “vivid rendition” as a condition for the intellgibility of a theory, then we have undone the equation between picturability and knowability. This means that the argument to the unknowability of the real, founded on the use of “unpicturable” theories (relativity, quantum theory), fails. These theories are not mere tools to predict and manipulate phenomena, but are means of knowing the real.

This problem of the real world versus phenomenal worlds, and that of the spectre of instrumentalism, are with us still. Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy gives an instrumentalist interpretation of science, the humanities, and even of common sense. On this view, science does not give us ontological knowledge of real objects and relations, but only instrumental knowledge of sensual worlds. The argument turns around the same aporia as 70 years ago: if it can’t be pictured it can’t be known, if it can be pictured it can’t be real. Feyerabend, at the age of 24, already saw through the primitivism that underlies this pessimistic ontology and refuted its presuppositions.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments


In considering the relation between Feyerabend and Popper in the 50s, an illmuminating comparison can be made with the relation between Nietzsche and Wagner. In both cases a younger thinker is transformed by his encounter with an older more successful, more established figure and then breaks away, later recounting the relation in negative terms. However, my interpretation is not Oedipal.

Nietzsche in later life presents this relation as having been based on suppression and on his own philosophical confusion. That is to say, Nietzsche at the time of the relation was aware of many negative traits of Wagner’s character but he suppressed (and to a certain extent repressed) that awareness because of what he thought was going on philosophically (and not just personally). His later re-writing of the relationship resembles Feyerabend’s re-writing of his relation with Popper, and for similar reasons.

Nietzsche decided that when he wrote positively about Wagner he was in fact describing himself, a “deep” self that would only become clearly manifest for him later. I think the same goes for Feyerabend, he revisits not just the events but what he thought was going on from a philosophical point of view at the time. KILLING TIME presents his more mature philosophical analysis of what was going on. The people he discusses remain real people, but they also become “symbols” in a story that presents the facts more accurately than archival research is capable of doing (the necessity of such symbols is described in his account of Pauli’s ideas in CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE).

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


Here is an inspiring and valuable survey of John David Ebert’s intellectual path from myth studies (Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell) to pluralist philosophy (Sloterdijk and Deleuze and Guattari), as seen through a series of his book reviews spanning 15 very productive years.

Ebert Reviews

This new book by John David Ebert illustrates a path that I find very interesting, from myth studies to Continental philosophy. In his preface to APOCALYPSE NOW: SCENE BY SCENE Ebert styles himself the “anti-Zizek”, and I think that is the sort of theoretical initiative we need now. His sense of an “agon” between Jung and Lacan is  indicative of a more general agon between pluralist speculation and academic conservatism, which is playing itself out in the culture at large, and also inside Continental Philosophy.

I am sick of sophisticated new thought being used in old inappropriate vessels, as is the case with Zizek and Badiou. This is also my objection to Laruelle and his disciples, who remain too Lacanian and too Althusserian, despite their proclamations of going beyond standard philosophy. There is too much cautious conformity in these supposedly radical thinkers, too much regression to old models that were dismantled over 40 years ago by thinkers as diverse as Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Feyerabend, and Michel Serres.

This is the reason I had great hopes with Bruno Latour’s initiative around his book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE. It was an attempt to elaborate a contemporary pluralist metaphysics, to think outside the hackneyed conceptual toolbox of Continental Theory. That failed because its centralised model turned it into a closed society protecting a dogmatic research programme, even if it contained internal flexibility and plurality.

I admire John David Ebert for not falling into these nostalgic traps and regressive dogmas. I also applaud his “do it yourself” ethic. From blogging and video-posting on a wide variety of authors and subjects to publishing a rapidly expanding series of books and audiobooks, Ebert has opened us up to a rich personal canon of reading and thinking, extending our references and our modes of understanding, illuminating specific books, films, current events, and also the large-scale movements of our culture. He has chosen to self-publish his own books outside the habitual channels of transmission. With no concern for polemic or sterile disputes he gives us a positive example of a tranquil path of intellectual creativity with the abundance of his works.

My involvement with Feyerabend, Jung, and Hillman in the 1970s is what gave me the strength to continue in philosophy when so many others either dropped out or made intellectually suicidal conformist compromises. I also formed with some friends a punk band where I sang and acted out what I could not express academically. This same ethics of autonomy of thought and expression has led me through many adventures, in quest of a vast pluralism and its singular paths (Jung would have called it “individuation”, but even that term can be annexed by a clique and turned into a shibboleth to reinforce inclusion into sectarian thinking). Ebert’s continuing evolution shows what can be achieved, despite the attempts to cow us into conformity and silence, despite the sectarian self-admiration societies, the pusillanimous snobism and the cliquish ostracism that is dominant in the careerist world of of our intellectuals.

So I wish Ebert well in his initiatives.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OOO AND DIALOGUE: a failed project

My review of Graham Harman’s book THE THIRD TABLE has now attained 2,000 views on academia.edu. I have also opened a discussion session, and the paper has received 662 views. Even allowing for some overlap, this amounts to 2,500 views. This is a good score, as OOO’s dialogic technique has been to treat fundamental critiques with silence, to pretend that they don’t exist, and to hope that they will go away.

There has been no reply from Harman over the last three years. I think that the booklet contains a particularly clear statement of his philosophy, and that it could have been at the origin of a wide discussion of OOO, not just limited to academics and partisans.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


Many people cling to at least some of the programmatic formulations of OOO mainly for emotional reasons, whether the theses are coherently expressed or the arguments are logically compelling or not. In the general climate of confusion and doubt, Harman’s OOO purports to vindicate faith in and speculation about the world, against post-modern syncretism, relativist tolerance, and sceptical resignation. As a consequence, much of OOO’s appeal is affective rather than conceptual.

Harman dares to take on not just scientism, but science itself, criticising its pretention to capture the real by means of its reductionist model. In opposition to this reductionism, the sense of both abundance and mystery is welcomed and legitimised, and objects become de-reified and re-estheticised. OOO promises a non-reductive approach to the world, and talks about the “inexhaustibility” of the real object, which is conceived as the opposite of its purported reducibility. More, it is taken as a pluralist point favouring the proliferation of interpretations, manifestations, and prehensions.

People seem willing to be indulgent about the details of the system, its tautologies, empty concepts, pseudo-paradoxes, and platitudes, as long as it maintains this sense of wonder and of mystery, of richness and of inaccessibility. They are charmed by the ambivalence of  the “withdrawn”, inaccessible real object combined with a sense of the multiplicity and abundance of its inexhaustible manifestations.

However, this affective appeal is insufficient to plaster over the problematic aspects of the concepts proposed, that have themselves become rigidified into a reductive system.

I have tried to take into account both affective and conceptual aspects in a short review of Harman’s shortest book THE THIRD TABLE (only eleven pages in English):

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A.R. Galloway’s postmortem of SR/OOO/Ontological-turn


A media theorist’s view of recent Continental philosophy, and my view of the philosophical Zeitgeist.

Originally posted on synthetic zero:

“Now that the SR/OOO wave has crested, crashed, and receded, we can start to evaluate it with the advantage of perspective. I won’t attempt to offer an autopsy here, but I do want to address a few points and then offer a prediction for the future. I’ll refer to some details about SR/OOO, but I also want to consider it more broadly as symptomatic of the new ontological turn or “that thing that happened after poststructuralism.” In other words, while some of the specific issues within SR/OOO are important, I think that the advent of SR/OOO is most useful for marking an historical boundary, even if it can’t explain the larger state of theory and philosophy today.
The first general point, one that I already made a few years ago, is that what began as realism has ended as materialism. We’ve seen this happen with the “new ontology”: what began…

View original 2,046 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments