COMPARISON ORIENTED ONTOLOGY (1): the demise of the notion of absolute withdrawal

In a very interesting blog post Jon Cogburn seems to imply that his article written in collaboration with Mark Allan Ohm, ACTUAL QUALITIES OF IMAGINATIVE THINGS, contains a reply to Nathan Brown’s critique of Harman’s OOO as being conceptually incoherent. Cogburn and Ohm’s article puts emphasis on the historical problem context for OOO and on the progression of arguments. This context and argument based approach is very commendable. But as to the ontology of OOO, the text remains very much on the meta-meta-level. They compare and contrast 3 sorts of OOO: withdrawal ontology (Harman), capacity metaphysics (Bryant, Cogburn, and Silcox), differential ontology (Garcia).

However Cogburn and Ohm do not say much about the actual ontologies, especially Harman’s (despite Brown’s main point being the conceptual incoherence of Harman’s OOO). They then go on to say that these 3 positions are “pure” ontologies giving rise to a multitude of “regional” ontologies. I am glad that they say so, as this has been my analysis from the very beginning of my writing on the subject, that Harman’s OOO is not so much an ontology as a meta-ontology. So I am happy to receive indirect confirmation from them on this point.

A second thesis that I argue for is that the by now classic “withdrawal” ontology is in its very nature incompatible with regional ontologies, unless they are asserted as belonging to the realm of illusion, to the domain of “phantoms and simulacra” as Harman calls it in his BELLS AND WHISTLES. This tension is also what Nathan Brown’s discussion adumbrates. Cogburn and Ohm give indirect credence to this in their discussion of Harman’s possible counter-critique of capacity metaphysics as reductionist.

This confirms as well a third thesis of mine, that capacity metaphysics is not in fact a “pure” ontology in Harman’s terms, but is already only one possible instantiation of Harman’s meta-ontology (I have constantly made this claim in comparing Bryant’s and Harman’s ontologes). That is to say that capacity metaphysics is a concrete instantiation of pure OOO, and so is necessarily in conflict with its basic principles, and must necessarily be criticised by Harman’s OOO as being reductionist, despite its being at a higher level of generality than the various regional ontologies.

Cogburn and Ohm’s exposition of these three ontologies, despite remaining fairly allusive, does not dispel the claim of conceptual incoherence, but rather confirms it. There is no way out of this problem as long as one retains Harman’s notion of absolute withdrawal. Cogburn and Ohm do a great job of explaining withdrawal in terms of a primacy of normative modal properties and relations. But absolute withdrawal doubles up not just objects (into real and sensual) but also doubles properties and relations. Such a concept of withdrawal produces too much ontological clutter, and Harman’s real objects, properties, and relations do not only multiply entities unnecessarily by providing them all with inaccessible duplicates, they also de-temporalise the world, whereas Cogburn and Ohm’s alethic and deontic possibilities and permissibilities comport a temporal aspect. This is behind their unwillingness to take on Harman’s full-blown fourfold ontology.

Thus Cogburn and Ohm confirm my tentative suggestion that one possible way out of Harman’s aporia of the real as an a-temporal innaccessible realm of duplicates of sensual entities (where “sensual” means scientific, social and common sense) would have to be dropping the notion of absolute withdrawal. However one must not ignore the price that must be paid for that. The price is the recognition that Harman is talking past himself i.e. that Harman as meta-metaphysician (ontology of withdrawal) is talking past himself as metaphysician (ontology of autonomous objects) and vice versa.

A higher price for absolute withdrawal is paid in what Cogburn and Ohm euphemistically call “externalizing”, and that is, in Harman’s case, the generalization of the bifurcation of nature into every single interaction. If as they call it “the advent of Garcia” helps them in their struggle to redefine OOO as an autonomy ontology involving only weak or relative withdrawal rather than a withdrawal meta-ontology, I can see the advantage in they may find in insisting on the importance of that movement.

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