Graham Harman in THE THIRD TABLE accomplishes an exploit that if it proved viable would merit the felicitations of pluralists everywhere: he has augmented the number of tables that we can “encounter” in the world. The scare-quotes are unfortunately necessary because, as we have seen Harman’s third table is unknowable, untouchable, un-sensible. Harman’s philosophy gives a new power to the prefix “un-“, just as Deleuze’s does to the prefix “de-“.
Harman describes, a little maladroitly as we have seen
cf. my review HOW TO PHILOSOPHIZE WITH A TABLE here:
the famous two tables that Sir Arthur Eddington put on the map (see the “Introduction” to Eddington’s 1928 book, THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD, available for free download here). He then goes on to add another table, the Harmanian table, weird object, or “harm” in the “Harmiverse”. I owe these terms to a post by David Roden, whose intellectual courage and general “openness” (he is a lecturer at something called The “Open” University, and I think that he is a fitting agent for the epithetic ethical program announced in that majestic name), has been a source of inspiration to me for the current post.
Harman is worried about something that he calls “reductionism” (but it isn’t). The common sense table (the “table of everyday life”) and the physicist’s table (here Harman is guilty of a tiny lapse of language, referring to it as the “scientific” table. He cannot really mean this, as he would be guilty then of what he decries: reductionism, in this case the reduction of all the sciences to physics) are said to be products of “reduction upward” and “reduction downward” respectively, with Harman declaring that “both are equally unreal“. Now reduction occurs when one explains entirely and without cognitive remainder one world of objects in terms of another. This is what Eddington refuses to do. His plea is quite other, for the absolute freedom of scientific explanation to deal in abstractions and symbolisms that have no direct relation with the familiar world. That is to say he refuses the methodological and ontological constraint placed on physics of reducibility to the everyday world and to everyday experience. His argument is for the irreduciblity of physics, and has at least this affinity with the principle of irreduction of Bruno Latour. Now the physicist has every right to explain the physical table any way he sees fit, in terms of assemblages of atoms or fields, or of shadowy unintuitive projections of abstract mathematical symbolism. This is not reduction at all, unless done badly by simply dissolving the table into physical items without taking into account its physical emergent structure. The physicist would be guilty of reduction in the full sense if he argued that the common sense table did not exist, and that the physicist’s table is the only real table.
That Harman may have discovered a new table, “the elusive table number three, emerging from its components while withdrawing from all direct access” (THE THIRD TABLE, p14) is quite possible, and I wish him luck. I think he is too modest as we have seen that Harman implicitly pluralises the first table (talking about the everyday table, the humanist’s table, and the “series-of-effects” table). He also talks about the artist’s table and shyly tries to identify his table with this fourth table. So with Harman we have many tables indeed.
Where I am disappointed and cry “Beware, reduction!” is when Harman affirms that his table, the “harm”, is “the only real table” (p11). This is reduction from one world (the everyday world, or the physical world, , as “both are equally unreal“) to another (Harman’s unknowable, untouchable Harmiverse). This gesture of an all to brief concession to pluralism, rapidly undone by a contradictory movement of monist reduction is a constant of Harman’s philosophical style. The short text of THE THIRD TABLE is no unfortunate but exceptional lapse of judgement but an exemplar of Harman’s characteristic method, a paradigm case. I can only applaud the initial pluralist proliferation, and regret the monist reduction that follows.