IS OOO OBSCURANTIST?: Only a specific argument can save us

Nathan Brown published in the online journal parrhesia an article (THE NADIR OF OOO) which contains a lengthy critique of some very questionable claims about maths and physics that are to be found in Timothy Morton’s book REALIST MAGIC, a short critique of Graham Harman’s ontology for its contradictory account of relations, and a few global remarks about OOO as “obscurantist”. One must note that this epithet of “obscurantism” is not a case of splenetic name-calling incompatible with academic dignity and deontology. It is the reformulation of Nathan Brown’s diagnosis of the incoherence of Harman’s position already apparent in TOOL-BEING. Brown argues for two important theses

1) Harman’s OOO needs both the withdrawal from relation of its real objects rendering them inaccessible to human knowledge and experience, and their imbrication in relations allowing him to give recognizable examples of objects:

“Harman acknowledges that in order for his ontology to be consistent objects must be non-relational—yet it must also be possible for the kidnapped Duke of Braunschweig, a pair of diamonds, a late landscape by Poussin, a genuine arrowhead from North America, a lock of hair from the late Elisabeth of Bohemia, and a specific rare Korean manuscript by an anonymous Zen master to count as an object, a substance (TB 284-287)” (Brown, 2).

2) Consequently, Harman himself cannot cognize objects and maintains them as totally indeterminate instantiations of an abstract meta-category serving as place-holder that is posited a priori and held up for intellection (but not for cognition, which is reductionist in Harman’s system) but subtracted from all sensory intuition (and also from all cognition):

“The most striking thing about the book’s conclusion is that it leaves us with no meaningful criterion for the constitution of objects at all” (Brown, 2).

Now Jon Cogburn has replied, but strangely enough his reply is more of an angry expostulation than a reasoned engagement with Nathan Brown’s text. Cogburn does not try to rebut the specific arguments about Morton’s technical errors in his use of and comments on scientific and mathematical theory, he even admits in the comments that he is not familiar enough with Morton’s work to be able to defend him. Further, Cogburn does not enter into the discussion of whether Harman’s theories about relations are self-contradictory or not, and whether his notion of a real object is coherent. He does not even bother to explain that this discussion is what gives content to Brown’s accusation of obscurantism.

So all that remains is a sort of indignation on principle against “supercilious” philosophical critique of non-professional philosophers who misuse philosophy. I think this reaction must be seen in terms of the turn against conceptual critique that OOO endorses, i.e. this is part of the “concept-blindness” of OOO. If Nathan Brown had just called OOO “obscurantist” he would have been ignored or dismissed with a smile of amusement. But that he actually dared to take (conceptually) seriously Morton’s pronouncements on logic, set theory, and physics, is somehow seen as scandalous.

Cogburn has promised to publish a more documented and more argumented rebuttal of Brown’s article. But it is difficult to see how this promised article can go beyond mere general methodological objections to Brown’s argumentative procedure. It is by now well-known that something is very wrong with Harman’s theory of relations, and that this shows up a contradiction in his notion of the “real object”.

Perhaps Cogburn will find a way to defend an OOO vision of relations and objects by modifying Harman’s basic ideas. However, I predict that this future paper will contain no defence of Morton’s pronouncements on logic, set theory, or physics, as none can be given, and that Cogburn is aware of this.  Just as Morton predicted that the Higgs boson would never be found (he was wrong) I predict that the Cogburn Defence will never be found, i.e. a defence of Morton’s actual pronouncements on logic, set theory and physics.

As to the more general Millian defence that Morton has the right to, and even should, intervene as a layman in expert debates because the tyranny of expert opinion is inimical to truth, I endorse it, and so does Cogburn, I think, because all his arguments are at this level of generality. What I do not endorse is the use of this general principle to immunize Morton from criticism. The Millian defence is meant to increase testability, not diminish it. So I predict that in the case of Morton’s specific pronouncements on these domains (logic, set theory, physics) no Cogburn Defence will be found.

My own methodological conclusion is that iIn dealing with OOO one must get down to specifics, although I think that some global arguments are possible too. So asking pointed questions and making concrete arguments about very specific assertions and persisting until one gets a precise non-dismissive answer is a very good strategy. Harman relies on a set of ambiguities, amounting to constantly sliding between an esoteric and an exoteric version of the same philosophy, with key terms bearing meanings from both versions. But I think that insisting on clarity can get round that obfuscatory barrier.

Postscript: I wish to thank Jon Cogburn for always having admitted I exist (some of the OOO brotherhood are quite correlationist in this regard, thinking that they can banish me into non-existence by subjective fiat). And it’s nice to be treated by him as making useful contributions to the discussion, instead of being the object of mean-spirited but ignorant contempt and having my arguments called “madness”, “streams of nonsense”, “vicious drivel”, etc. So I can understand Cogburn’s being riled when he considers that stigmatising rhetoric is prevailing over reasoned argument. I quite accept that one can elaborate a “non-Harmanian” OOO (dare I say in the same sense of “non-” that Laruelle employs in his notion of non-philosophy) that is not necessarily anti-Harmanian. I would like to hear Cogburn say more on Garcia than on a polemic that has very little to do with him indeed.

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