WOLFENDALE, HARMAN, AND INCOMMENSURABILITY: or why people may find OOO appealing

Behind the question of correlationism lies the problem of the blockage to communication, discussion, and exchange posed by the existence of incommensurable systems of thought and worldviews. Graham Harman’s OOO tries to answer this problem but the solution is unacceptable, as it universalises the problem rather than resolving it.

I think one thing that is lacking in Pete Wolfendale’s book is that gives a good account of why people were attracted to the original discussions around SR and their subsequent disappointment, but he doesn’t give a positive account of the attraction that Harman’s philosophy exercised at the beginning. Personally, I do not think that “correlationism” as such was ever the issue, but that underlying it is the problem of incommensurability and of communicative closure between different understandings of Being. This is part of the heritage of the later Heidegger, that Harman tried to undercut with his generalisation of tool-being. This sort of incommensurability seems to lead to a radical relativism, and to the impossibility of explaining the changes in worldview that have occurred historically, or that can be found in an individual’s personal history. By proposing a solution to this problem Harman was very much worth the effort of getting acquainted with his philosophy.

I can testify that I deeply felt the problem, and that is why I turned to Harman’s book TOOL-BEING. I had initially been drawn to the contemporary restatement of Heidegger’s incommensurable plurality of understandings of Being to be found in Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s book ALL THINGS SHINING, but I found that they didn’t really confront this problem. An account of the intellectual context for the Heideggerian version of the problem of incommensurability can be found in my review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s book.

So I looked for alternative accounts, and discovered Harman’s work. I was at first impressed by his freedom of style and inspired by his proposed solution. Tool-being was universalised to give us what amounts to a new philosophy of Nature, where there are no incommensurable boundaries thanks to the primacy of objects.

However, I quickly realised that the solution was worse than the problem. Harman’s account generalised the problem of incommensurability to all beings, treated as vacuum-packed “objects” sealed off from all relation, unable to interact except by a magical ad hoc process called “vicarious causation”. I came to see that Heidegger had proposed his own solution in his “thing”-paradigm, which broadly speaking is of the same type as the various philosophies of assemblage going from Feyerabend through Deleuze to Latour. In these theories the existence of “incommensurability” is recognised, and it is admitted that it can occasionally prevent communication.

Yet, if we take assemblages as primary then incommensurability exists only as a level of abstraction where certain elements of the process of interaction are isolated out and frozen into structures that are regarded as the essence of what is going on. In other words, the problem is a local and historical artefact rather than a universal predicament. In a wider ontology, such as we find in the work of Paul Feyerabend, Gilles Deleuze, and Bernard Stiegler (see my essay IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?), the “correlational circle” never gets formed, so there is no need of special means for dissolving it or for going outside.

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