AGAINST OBJECTAL REDUCTIONISM: a Machian rejoinder to Harman’s SR/OOO tutorial

One of my biggest objections to OOO concerns the question of primacy, which remains moot in contemporary philosophy. Harman’s ontological turn gives primacy to (transcendental, meta-level) philosophy. Feyerabend articulates a Machian position, one that gives primacy neither to philosophy nor to physics, but defends the open-mindedness of empirical (though not necessarily scientific) research. I think this can be clarified by examining Feyerabend’s defense of the “way of the scientist” as against the “way of the philosopher”. Feyerabend’s references to Mach (and to Pauli) show that this “way of the scientist” is transversal, not respecting the boundaries between scientific disciplines nor those between the sciences and the humanities and the arts. So it is more properly called the “way of research”.

Ernst Mach is often seen as a precursor of the logical positivists, an exponent of the idea that “things” are logical constructions built up out of the sensory qualities that compose the world, mere bundles of sensations. He would thus be a key example of what Graham Harman in THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT calls “overmining”. Feyerabend has shown in a number of essays that this vision of Mach’s “philosophy” (the quotation marks are necessary, according to Feyerabend “because Mach refused to be regarded as the proponent of a new “philosophy””, SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY, p192) is erroneous, based on a misreading by the logical positivists that confounds his general ontology with one specific ontological hypothesis that Mach was at pains to describe as a provisional and research-relative specification of his more general proposal.

Following Ernst Mach, Feyerabend expounds the rudiments of what he calls a general methodology or a general cosmology (this ambiguity is important: Feyerabend, on general grounds but also after a close scrutiny of several important episodes in the history of physics, proceeds as if there is no clear and sharp demarcation between ontology and epistemology, whereas Harman, without the slightest case study, is convinced of the existence of such a dichotomy). Feyerabend’s discussion of Mach’s ontology can be found in SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY (NLB, 1978, p196-203) and in many other places, making it clear that it is one of the enduring inspirations of his work. Mach’s ontology can be summarised, according to Feyerabend, in two points:

i) the world is composed of elements an their relations

ii) the nature of these elements and their relations is to be specified by empirical research

One may note a resemblance with Graham Harman’s ontology, summarised in his “brief SR/OOO tutorial“:

i) Individual entities of various different scales (not just tiny quarks and electrons) are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.

ii) These entities are never exhausted by their relations…Objects withdraw from relation.

The difference is illuminating. Whereas Mach leaves the nature of these elements open, allowing for the exploration of several hypotheses, Harman transcendentally reduces these possibilities to one: elements are objects (NB: this reduction of the possibilities to one, enshrined in a transcendental principle, is one of the reasons for calling Harman’s OOO an objectal reduction). Further, by allowing empirical research to specify the relations, Mach does not give himself an a priori principle of withdrawal: here again “withdrawal” is just one possibility among many. Another advantage of this ontology of unspecified elements is that it allows us to do research across disciplinary boundaries, including that between science and philosophy. Feyerabend talks of Mach’s ontology’s “disregard for distinctions between areas of research. Any method, any type of knowledge could enter the discussion of a particular problem” (p197). Mach’s ontology is diachronic, evolving with and as part of empirical research. Harman’s ontology is synchronic, dictating and fixing transcendentally the elements of the world.

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