PLURALIST ONTOLOGY: Let a Thousand Tables Bloom!

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


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.

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9 Responses to PLURALIST ONTOLOGY: Let a Thousand Tables Bloom!

  1. Pingback: Feyerabend on Positivity beyond Critique (1): Multiply the micrologies | AGENT SWARM

  2. Bill Benzon says:

    I’ve not read Harman’s little book, only his (original) blog post. In this post I count up five tables: 1) the ordinary phenomenal table, 2) a Newtonian table, 3) an Einsteinian table, 4) a quantuum mechanical table, and 5) the “real” table of perpetual withdrawing. One can no doubt add others into the mix.


  3. terenceblake says:

    Yes, when I arrived in France in 1980 I had private conversations with Michel Serres and Jean-François Lyotard. I was very struck that for them this plurality of the “same” object was extended even to the body. The anatomical body is different to the athletic body, to the erotic body, and to the working body etc. There was no attempt to posit a further “real” body, and I think Deleuze and Guattari go even further in this sense.
    You may like to look at the discussion with Charles Spinosa I had a while back concerning the dispersion of identity across a multiplicity of micro-worlds:


  4. Bill Benzon says:

    1) I’ve read those posts, and commented on one of them. In general, this is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. On the one hand there’s continuity at, shall we say, the (merely) personal level, continuity of oneself across time and continuity of things in the world, all of this in the ordinary “common sense” world. & the matter simply multiplies when you add-in the many and various specialized worlds that arise from specialized craft, technique, and conceptualization.

    2) As for positing a ‘real’ object across these micro-worlds, at some level we pretty much do that without anything so explicit as philosophical positing unless we’ve been subject to the conditions that give rise to ‘multiple personalities.’ Beyond that, if we wish to do some explicit positing, well, we can do so by way of abundance (as you suggest right around the corner) as easily as through withdrawal.

    3) I’m intrigued by your observation that Harman is more an inept epistemologist than an ontologists. Not sure I agree with it but the observation points up an ambiguity/problematic that I think is very much with us these days.

    4) I’m wondering if Latour will be addressing these issues in his upcoming book on modes of existence? Alas, as I have no French I’ll have to wait until next year for the English translation. But the bits and piecess that have slipped out do look suggestive.

    5) FWIW, I found my way here from comments you made at Galloway’s recent Harman post. I’ve developed a certain interest in OOO over the past year, though I’m not a philosopher and don’t intend to take up the trade. My plate’s full with my own problems, but a little look-see at philosophy seems useful for various purposes.


  5. terenceblake says:

    1) I’m glad you found some of my stuff interesting enough to read. I have been thinking about these things for a long time: at least since 1972 when I first read the essay version of Feyerabend’s AGAINST METHOD. Pluralism was very much a minority position in the Anglophone world in the 70s. This is ultimately why I chose to migrate to France in 1980, because there pluralism was being developped by Lyotard, Deleuze, Serres, Edgar Morin, Foucault, even in some ways Derrida and Baudrillard. I think that the discovery of the discontinuities beneath the continuity and hidden by it is a great intellectual experience, even if it is only a beginning and not the last word. Harman scarcely recognises this underlying multiplicity of selves and of worlds, and quickly reduces it all back to the deeper underlying unities, as if he were being revolutionary when he is in fact regressing.
    2) We do posit a unity across worlds, and some unity is necessary. But we usually posit too much unity and of the wrong sort. The unity is not an ontological given, but an unstable, provisional, mutable, perspectival ongoing production. In your comment here:
    you allude to the neurobiological models of multiple selves (and this is the case for everyone, not just for those where it takes the pathological form of multiple personalities) and multiple worlds. I think that this is one onstantiation of a more general model of multiplicities as developped by Deleuze. Another instantiation is the Jungian model of the self as composed of multiple sub-personalities (this psychological model goes directly to the multiple selves without passing by the neurological substrate, so it is a different and, to my mind, equal, in validity and value, instantiation. Another is the engaging with these multiple selves and worlds in literature: in Proust, as Deleuze shows, and in Melville as Dreyfus and Kelly show (if you have not yet read ALL THINGS SHINING you really must, despite some wishy washy passages).
    3) I think that Harman, like Meillassoux, has created a conceptual hodge podge that I now call an ontoepistemology. I was already convinced of this before THE THIRD TABLE came out, and it served to confirm my thesis. Read it, and tell me what you think. I am trying to provoke discussion, but that means having a different point of view and expressing it clearly and forcefully, with textual references and real arguments, and not just pontification and “quarrelation”.
    4) I am glad that my comments on the Galloway thread led to us finally communicating. I had been reading your blog for some time, and I was aware of your rapprochement of ontology and epistemology (and of Harman and Kuhn), but I didn’t want to just appear on your blog and disagree. Unanimity is not as important as dialogue, so it is good that a dialogue is beginning. I distinguish philosophy as an element in your individuation process (what Deleuze called a “philosophical becoming”) and philosophy as a profession. Sometimes the two can be reconciled, and that is a miracle. I saw that in a big way in the flesh during the 5 years I attended Deleuze’s seminars. But if ever I have to choose, I prefer the former to the latter every time. So fill your plate with whatever nourishes you and take care on what table(s) you place it.


  6. terenceblake says:

    oh and I forgot:
    5) (really 4 but let’s not quibble) I will be giving a translation-summary of Latour’s book as soon as it comes out. I have already given translation-summaries of a video interview with Gilbert Simondon starting here:
    and of an interview with Michel Onfray starting here:
    This is something I like doing.


  7. Bill Benzon says:

    By all means, feel free to comment over at New Savanna. Disagreement is fine.

    As for my rapprochement of ontology and epistemolog, well, that just happened, if that’s what it is. The particular passage from JJ Gibson I’ve been quoting has been one of my touchstones for years, going back to graduate school in the mid-70s. That it does work similar to Harman’s tooling, well, I find that interesting. Beyond that . . . . In the case of my turn on Kuhn and Harman, well, I’ve assigned Harman to a certain role beyond Kuhn’s story. I’ve been casually wondering whether or not I need him in that role.

    My major problem with OOO as I currently see it is what seems to me a too casual treatment of imaginary objects as real. If they’re objects that WE imagine, well, I don’t see that they’re autonomous from us and thus don’t see how they can be treated as proper objects. There’s been some discussion of literary texts at Levi Bryant’s blog and Chris Koffield’s that seem to me to have been generated in pro-forma autopilot mode without really thinking about how literature comes to exist and is used, as though texts just somehow landed here from another planet and their markings just magically made sense to us.

    On the other hand, if we’re talking about objects imagined by dogs or monkeys, well, we don’t know anything about them, do we? And, in any event, those objects would depend on the dogs and monkeys and so aren’t autonomous objects either.

    If they really want to deal with such matters I think they’ve got more work to do and they’re going to have to face up to multiple worlds. I think.


  8. terenceblake says:

    In the 70s my philosophy department was dominated by the Althusserians, and one of the big problems was how to strengthen and support their realism. Althusser makes a distinction between the theoretical object that is produced by the theoretical practices, and the real object, about which, unfortunately, we can say nothing, as we would be mobilising the concepts of a particular theoretical practice and of the problematic that subtends it. So they could absorb Kuhn easily, but they were desperate to find some theoretical underpinning for their realism, which otherwise ran the risk of remaining just a ritual phrase appended to what was otherwise basically an idealist system. They were desperate so they tried many approaches, one year it was Kripke and rigid designators, the next year it was Bhaskar, and it was always changing.
    Why was it always changing? Because all of these theories said too much about the reality behind the the theoretical limits and so posed unproven limits on thought and research, and were circular as to specify the reality behind the theories they had to make use of arguments presupposing that our current physical theory “referred” to that reality, to a great enough degree that it could provide the real referents for outmoded and refuted theories.
    I always took a Feyerabendian line, which he himself finally formulated explicitly in the 80s. You should look at this article of his from 1989:
    It expresses a position which has some similarities with Harman’s position, without being too specific, and so not constraining the results of later thought and research. Harman’s position does not constrain scientific research (but it does constrain artistic research, if we are to believe THE THIRD TABLE), but only by demoting its objects to “utter shams” (his words, THE THIRD TABLE, p6; but the accusation is made repeatedly in this short text, it is no mere unfortunate side-comment), or theoretical objects. As a consequence, the specifics that we can say about real objects are left to philosophy, and thus withdrawn from all empirical criticism. Feyerabend saw all this in the 80s and constructed his ontology to avoid them. Another difference with Feyerabend is that he self-consciously and explicitly associates epistemological and ontological considerations, and does not try to disguise that argumentative structure (as Harman does).


  9. Pingback: DIALOGUE WITH BILL BENZON: On Kuhn, Feyerabend, Harman and Multiple Worlds | AGENT SWARM

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