Harman’s “master argument” against relational ontologies is that they cannot explain change, that if everything were related nothing would change. This is patently false, as relations include temporal relations. Deleuze for example talks about both kinetic (relative speeds and accelerations) and dynamic (relative forces, and relative capacities to affect and to be affected) relations. It is ludicrous to claim that Deleuze’s system entails that change is impossible.

This shows not only Harman’s incomprehension of relations (that he systematically confuses with specific subsets of relations such as interactions, and also with specific types of relation such as contact and access), but also his inability to understand the positions he is arguing against, and that he is supposed to have gone beyond. He critiques only straw man positions that have never existed. He has no understanding of, for example, Deleuze, and just deprecates his philosophy without getting into any detail. He gives pseudo-conceptual affective refutations with no citations and no analysis. Further, he has given no substantial account of what is wrong with so-called “relational” ontologies in general, except for his master-argument that if everything were related change would be impossible. Harman tries to insinuate that in his ontology change can be accounted for.

However, Harman denies the reality of time and so his ontology is synchronic in a very strong sense. His understanding of other philosophers is based on a synchronic reduction of their style. Even his reading ((in THE THIRD TABLE) of Eddington’s two tables argument falsifies it by extracting it from the whole movement of Eddington’s « Introduction » to his book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD, and from his vision of the movement of research in general. Harman just doesn’t “get” temporal relations. Hence his repeated, and absurd, claim that if everything was composed of relations nothing would change. As if moving faster or slower than, accelerating faster or slower than,  being attracted or repelled or pushed or whirled around were not relations.

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  1. Philip dit :

    I had occasion to read some critical realist philosophy yesterday and it’s striking how similar their straw men are to those of Harman et al. ‘It’s a contradiction to speak of a world beyond language’ becomes ‘there is nothing besides language,’ which is not the same thing at all. Now, I agree that both versions of that basic ‘anti-realist’ position are unsatisfactory and that none of the solutions in the Kantian mould are good enough – nor is simply ‘problematising’ the issue a la the poststructuralists good enough. However, that simplification and caricaturing doesn’t really get us anywhere and it’s consistent between Bhaskar et al. and Harman et al. They inherited a large degree of the critical realists’ belligerence, too.

    With regard to ‘no change in a relational universe’ thing I’ve never understood this argument. How don’t negative prehensions (in Whitehead’s terms) do the job? I can’t see why they don’t obviate the need for substance. A negative prehension is a real transcendence, a real disconnection. Latour’s translations and transformations place an even greater emphasis on disconnection. If absolutely everything’s connected (and only a few would argue this) then it doesn’t follow that everything’s absolutely connected – so there’s still room for contingency and ‘surprise’ on a metaphysical level. And that incompleteness opens up space for real time, as you say.


  2. terenceblake dit :

    Yes, I was exposed to Bhaskar about 35 years ago, and it seemed to me that he was merely retrofitting his ontology to ground recent epistemological discussions with dogmatic ontological shadows that grounded nothing as they were extrapolated from what they were supposed to ground. The Althusserians loved him and mixed him with Kripke to show how realist they were.

    Everything is related is not the same as everything is connected. Everything physical has a specific spatio-temporal relation to everything else, without being connected in any strong sense. And even if we factor in quantum theory, a probabilistic relation is still a relation. Disconnection is a relation too: « I am causally disconnected from things outside my light cone » means there is a relation, but precisely not an interaction.


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