DIALOGUE WITH BILL BENZON: On Kuhn, Feyerabend, Harman and Multiple Worlds

Bill Benzon has been reflecting on the necessary rapprochement between ontology and epistemology for some time. Some recent posts of his on his blog (for example here and here) discuss this more explicitly, but he has been working on this for a long time. He recently wrote some interesting comments on my blog, so I am foregrounding our dialogue to hopefully open a wider discussion:

Bill Benzon says:

  1. 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 quantum mechanical table, and 5) the “real” table of perpetual withdrawing. One can no doubt add others into the mix.

  2. 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:

  3. 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.

  4. 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: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/multiple-worlds-and-post-identity/#comment-654
    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 instantiation 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 these difficulties 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).

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5 Responses to DIALOGUE WITH BILL BENZON: On Kuhn, Feyerabend, Harman and Multiple Worlds

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    “…the specifics that we can say about real objects are left to philosophy…”

    But if real objects are ever withdrawing at the rate of cheetah-chasing centaurs, then how can philosophers ever say anything but “they went thataway, or there, or missed ’em”?

    I enjoyed they Feyerabend piece and will think about it. It’s nicely free of technical terminology, but it’s nonetheless potent.


  2. terenceblake says:

    I think the problem is an artefact of the terminology used. Harman describes a situation where objects are never exhausted by their relations, or is it by their interactions? Harman often conflates the two. Already the word “exhausted” plunges us into negative land, when all he wants to say is that they are more than any particular relation; Then he redescribes this ontological description by saying that objects withdraw, the language of the ascetic priest. But they did not “go thataway”, they are here all around us and the centaurs and the cheetah are coming towards us. This is the language of abundance. The two languages are perhaps synonymous at the level of strict purified content, but they are not equivalent in resonance and so not in the types of action they might inspire. Guattari too proposes an aesthetic paradigm, but there is none of this language of resignation.


    • Bill Benzon says:

      Given Harman’s belief in the value of vivid language in philosophy the resonance in his language surely is something he’s deliberate about.

      So, who’s taken up Feyerabend on abundance? Though I’ve known of him for years, I never read him (beyond an essay in a volume Lakatos edited on Kuhn) and only learned of abundance in John Horgan’s book, The End of Science. Horgan had interviewed Feyerabend.


  3. terenceblake says:

    It is this very belief in his own language that is worrisome, an oft-repeated metaphor does not a concept make. Harman’s use of the language of “withdrawal” makes of him the poor man’s Lacan, where the real is lacking to the Symbolic order, withdraws and can never be grasped. This is the “priestly” dimension of Harman’s ideas that I allude to above. If I were an Althusserian I would say that Harman is still operating inside the problematic of presence, “withdrawal” has sense only as one of the options inside the problematic of presence. So this is no escape from ontotheology at all. In THE THIRD TABLE he virtually abandons the use of the word “withdrawal” and uses the language of depth. When other things encounter the real object “they fail to exhaust its inner depths” (p10), the real object “is something deeper than any relatons in which it might become involved” (p10). So while Harman may make use of some vivid language to talk about the surface of things, his deep ontology is described in an obsessive purified language that reduces away all the concrete abundance of the world, declared mere surface sham in the face of the ontological primacy of his deep withdrawn objects, the only real ones in his eyes.


  4. Bill Benzon says:

    Getting back to epistemology and ontology, one of the things I noted at the beginning of this is that the world “being” doesn’t carry a lot of weight for me, which makes it rather easy for me to sign on to a flat ontology. So we’ve got a blue whale, a cesium atom, some clouds, a bed of irises, the cliffs of Dover, and so forth. As long as you’re not asking to say that the differences between them are trivial, that they act in the world in much the same way, as long as you don’t ask me to do those things, why then, sure, they’re all equal in being.

    Which would seem to make ontology a rather thin subject. Of course, Harman’s ontology isn’t quite THAT thin as he distinguishes between real objects and sensual objects, giving him a two-level ontology. And he’s got qualities of both kinds, and relations. So there’s something there.

    But at this point I run into something I remarked on in a comment over at New Savanna, namely that this feels rather like knowledge representation in cognitive science, where you’ve got entities of various kinds, relations between entities, and quantification over propositions built from entities and relations. But you don’t have the flamboyant language. Otherwise the two modes of discorse feel rather alike.

    And then you’ve got discussions about natural kinds in the analytic tradition. What kinds of discussions are those?


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