GRAHAM HARMAN’S SPECULATIVE REDUCTIONISM: a Machian critique of the SR/OOO propaganda “tutorial”

Continuing with my pedagogical rewrite of my survey article on Graham Harman’s abstract monist idealism, I show that “SR” in Harman’s case means speculative reductionism:

1) Primacy: transcendental philosophy vs empirical research

One of the 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.

2) Research is transversal

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”. 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).

3) Ernst Mach: Positivist vs Pluralist

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, 192) 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.

4) General Methodology

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 asserts the existence of such a dichotomy. Harman’s actual practice, I have argued, proceeds by ignoring the distinction and mixing in a confused way epistemological and ontological considerations).


Feyerabend discusses Mach’s ontology in SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY(196-203) and makes it clear that it is one of the enduring inspirations of his work. He claims that Mach’s ontology can be summarised 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“, reprinted as Chapter 1 of BELLS AND WHISTLES:

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.

7) THE ELEMENTS: Machian openness vs Harmanian closure

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).

8) THE RELATIONS: Absolute Withdrawal vs Degrees and Qualities of Connection and Disconnection

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.

9) TEMPORALITY: Synchronic vs Diachronic

Mach’s ontology is diachronic, evolving with and as part of empirical research. Conversely,Harman’s ontology is synchronic, dictating and fixing transcendentally the elements of the world.

10) INTRA-WORLD REDUCTION: everyone else but Harman is “reductionist”

Harman has invented a new vocabulary to describe various types of reductionism that he believes he has discerned in various philosophical moves. The move of explaining a macroscopic objectsuch as a table in terms of its atomic and sub-atomic is called “undermining”. Explaining the table in terms of the flux of perceptions is called “overmining”. Harman has recently detected arguments that make both moves at once, so he has baptised them “duomining”. A notable feature of all three moves is that their reduction operates inside only one of the worlds that Harman discusses – the world of “utter shams”.

11) TRANSWORLD REDUCTION: Harman is a speculative reductionist

But Harman himself operates a different sort of reduction that reduces the reality of one world, the “sham” world of sensual objects, to that of the “real” world of withdrawn objects. As this reduction cuts across both worlds, I propose to call it transmining”. The difference with the preceding is that intra-world reduction is an empirical hypothesis, that is to be tested and to Be discarded if it does not hold up to empirical investigation. Harman’s objectal reduction is an apodictic posit, invulnerable to empirical testing.

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One Response to GRAHAM HARMAN’S SPECULATIVE REDUCTIONISM: a Machian critique of the SR/OOO propaganda “tutorial”

  1. Pingback: BEST INTRODUCTION TO OOO: some advice and references | AGENT SWARM

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