LARUELLE vs HARMAN: the case of the third table

Graham Harman’s metaphysics and epistemology are monist: there is a realm of sensual objects, simulacra stemming from and giving rise to a plurality of apparent knowledges. But reality itself, the realm of real objects, is a withdrawn absolute outside our knowledge and independent of it.A very useful summary of his position is given by Harman in a little pamphlet called THE THIRD TABLE and I have given a review of the book here.

It is interesting to compare Harman’s position, which exemplifies a regression in relation to the recent Continental philosophy, to contemporary thinkers who defend a more pluralist vision. In this post I will concentrate on the philosophy of François Laruelle, who is not usually described as a pluralist, but whose non-philosophy eliminates various obstacles to pluralism, and whose more recent non-standard philosophy has much in common with explicitly pluralist thinkers such as Paul Feyerabend, Gilles Deleuze, and Bruno Latour.

Anthony Paul Smith in a lecture on Laruelle’s Ethical Theory confirms this thesis of Laruelle’s pluralism:

“I wouldn’t say that Laruelle is a relativist in some kind of recognisable Anglophone sense … he’s really a pluralist, though. It’s an attempt to try to create a pluralising effect in thought, while still having this commonality that connects those pluralising things”. (1.00.56-1.01.14).

In another interesting talk on Laruelle and the Speculative Turn here, makes much use of Louis Morelle’s paper on Speculative Realism. He takes the example of chairs, but to align his talk with the example used in Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE I will couch my summary in terms of tables.

Anthony gives the by now standard, but apparently still necessary, explanation of the “non-” in non-philosophy as not so much an operator of negation as of relativisation and pluralisation. He cites the “pluralism of mathematics” (around 26minutes in) as a model of what non-philosophy is trying to do and talks about the pluralist claim of non-philosophy (27mins45s): “Given an object more than one form of knowing is able to know it as such … it’s a pluralist notion”. This shatters philosophy’s monist Ur-doxa, negates its authoritarianism, and liberates lived experience. The aim is “to free the actualised immanent identity from its transcendental conception” (32mins). Actuals are projected by philosophy and circumscribed in “closed concepts within a transcendence”. Laruelle resolves the correlationist dilemma by seeing subject and object as projections of a “third thing” (37mins) “the thing as it is radically immanent not to a concept or an idea but to itself  as it is lived without life. For the example of the table (37mins50) “you can’t just say that it has no relation to subjectivity…there is still some human element to the actuality of the table, there is still some mathematical actuality to what the table is” (Note: in the original APS talks of the “chair”, I have substituted “table”). “The identity of the table as radically immanent is what he is concerned with”.

Anthony comes out with what he calls a non-philosophical thesis: “There is no fundamental ontological difference in the relations between subject and object, but there is an identity of each of these objects that is prior to ontology and significant, what Laruelle calls in-One” (41mins15). Non-philosophy and OOO agree that philosophy itself has no privilege, it is just one object amongst others. For Laruelle, ontology is flattened and non-hierarchical  objects are “real in the last instance” i.e. in Harman’s terms they have an identity that is “withdrawn”. For Harman the table is withdrawn from human determination, for Laruelle the table is real in the last instance. “.

To illustrate the difference between Laruelle’s non-philosophy and OOO Smith talks about how OOO’s use of Latour litanies does not get beyond the mere observation or affirmation of existence of various objects and so remains within the natural attitude. “While we are given a litany, we are rarely given an analysis beyond that litany” (46mins30). In non-philosophy there has been an intense analysis of particular objects, more abstract ones like thought, philosophy, science, and religion, and also more corporeal ones such as photos and colours. So non-philosophy tries to bring out the identities of different objects in a way that OOO does not.

Smith then goes on to talk about Ray Brassier’s scientistic version of Speculative Realism, and onsiders the example of the greenness of grass, which as a “secondary effect” is an illusion for Brassier, but for Laruelle, despite being secondary, is “relatively autonomous as rooted in its own radical immanence”. It is real because it is actual in the moment of its perception by an observer, it has some real effect. “This can be shown ecologically” affirms Anthony (52mins30). Conclusion: the actuality of the table is caught up in the human in a way such that it is not determined by the human and that it is not totally withdrawn and unknowable or incomprehensible either, but this imbrication with the human bears on its identity in the last instance.

I found Smith’s talk on Laruelle and the Speculative Turn very interesting, but also very puzzling, especially if one compares the position attributed to Laruelle with that of Graham Harman’s in THE THIRD TABLE. Harman’s position is one of a surface pluralism (there are multiple régimes of knowing for an object such as a table) overcoded by a deep monism and demarcationism (the humanist, the scientific, and the everyday tables are “utter shams”, only the withdrawn table is real) embedded in a synchronic ontological frame (time is not an ontologically pertinent feature of real objects).

The superiority of Laruelle over Harman is is that his pluralism is non-demarcationist: “given an object, more than one form of knowing is able to know it as such” declares Smith. But he contrasts this with Harman’s view by asserting “there is still some human element to the actuality of the table, there is still some mathematical actuality to what the table is”. So where Harman demotes  both the mathematical and the sensual table to the status of “utter shams”, Laruelle, on this account affirms the reality (or “actuality”) of the third table (note: Smith speaks of the real table as a “third thing”) in its “imbrication” with the human and with the mathematical. Opposed to Harman’s demarcation we have Laruelle’s imbrication.

Thus the table has its own identity but it is an identity-in-the-last-instance, as opposed to a withdrawn identity. It is an abundant identity including its imbrications, rather than an impoverished identity abstracted from those imbrications. This is surely an improvement over Harman’s version of OOO. But what is missing for me is the sense of diachrony, of becoming. Perhaps the notion of imbrication, which is pluralist in the sense that the imbrications are multiple, is meant to convey the diachronic dimension as well, in the sense that our perceptions and our scientific theories evolve over time, and that so does the object?

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