REVIEW OF WOLFENDALE (7): Under Correlationism the Problem of Incommensurability

Wolfendale’s critiques of OOP quite often do not originate with him, his book assembles in one place many criticisms of Harman’s system that have already been made by others, from its beginning up to now. Where Wolfendale’s text differs is that he tries to give these arguments and critical analyses greater scope, sense and weight by incorporating them into his own less than satisfactory unifying framework of “mathematical structuralism”, and this unified approach is one of the main advantages of the book. However, this appeal to a mathematico-scientific foundation is question-begging. Wolfendale’s own framework relies heavily on scientistic assumptions that are part of what Harman’s OOP is reacting against. Thus the chief advantage of the book is also its greatest weakness.

Harman’s philosophising begins from a point where relativist arguments have weakened the presumption in favour of scientism, and a refutation that presupposes the validity of scientism will have no effect on those who have seen through its presuppositions and who recoil from the descent into chaos and incommunicability that this rejection of scientism seems to entail.

For behind the question of correlationism lies the problem of the obstacle to dialogue, communication, discussion, and exchange posed by the existence of incommensurable systems of thought and worldviews. Graham Harman’s OOP tries to provide an answer to this problem, but the solution he proposes is unacceptable as it universalises the problem rather than resolving it.

One thing that is lacking in Pete Wolfendale’s book is that he gives a good account of why people were attracted to the original discussions around Speculative Realism and of their subsequent disappointment, but he does not give a positive account of the attraction that Harman’s philosophy exercised over many people at the beginning. I do not think that “correlationism” as such was ever the issue, but that underlying this pseudo-problem is the problem posed by the existence of incommensurability and of communicative closure between different ontologies or understandings of Being.

This problem 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 gave the impression that getting acquainted with the principles of his philosophy and with its epicycles was very much worth the effort.

I can testify that I deeply felt the problem, and that is why I turned to Harman’s book TOOL-BEING for a solution. I had initially been drawn to the contemporary restatement of Heidegger’s incommensurable plurality of understandings of Being that is to be found in Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s book ALL THINGS SHINING, but I found that they did not confront the problems of dialogue and of theory-change. Looking for alternative accounts and new solutions, I discovered Harman’s work and 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 over the frameworks that attempt to grasp them.

However, I soon realised that the solution was worse than the problem it was supposed to resolve. 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 already proposed his own solution in his thing-paradigm, which is of the same type as the various philosophies of assemblage extending 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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