IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?: synchronic vs diachronic ontologies

Summary: In this paper I consider the ontologies of Louis Althusser, Graham Harman, and Paul Feyerabend. I begin by “deconstructing” the title and explaining that Feyerabend does not usually use the noun “ontology”, although he does sometimes call his position “ontological” realism. He prefers to talk about his position as indifferently a “general methodology” or a “general cosmology”, and he seems to be be hostile to the very enterprise of ontology, conceived of as “school philosophy”.

I then go on to sketch out a different type of ontology than the classical notion rejected by Feyerabend. I call this a “diachronic ontology”, and argue that it is the sort of ontology that Feyerabend would have accepted.

A diachronic ontology is very different from ontology as ordinarily conceived, which one could call by contrast a synchronic ontology, an ontology having no room for the dialogue with Being, but that simply presupposes that Being is already and always there without our contribution.

To illustrate the concept of synchronic ontology, I analyse the very similar “ontologies” (or rather onto-epistemologies) put forward by Louis Althusser and by Graham Harman as typical exemplars of synchronic ontology. During this discussion I give a close reading of Harman’s book THE THIRD TABLE.

Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy and Althusser’s structuralist Marxism share the same demarcationist ontology of real objects and ideological or “sensual” objects, the same critique of the problematic of the subject (now called “correlationism” or philosophy of access) and the same utterly inadequate epistemology, incapable of explaining scientific progress.

I then discuss Feyerabend’s ideas in his later philosophy (e.g. in the articles collected in CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE), as showing a different way for ontology, that of a diachronic ontology, in which there is no stable framework and no fixed path.

I conclude with a discussion of Andrew Pickering’s essay NEW ONTOLOGIES, which makes a similar distinction to mine, expressing the difference between two types of ontology in the imagistic terms of the difference between a De Kooningian (diachronic) versus a Mondrianesque (synchronic) approach.

Comment: IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID? (here) is the most complete exposition to date of my general ideas on ontology, even if it is very compressed. Its general argument can usefully be complemented with the more specific material in my review of Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE.

Note: This text is a translation and expansion of a paper originally given in French at Bernard Stiegler’s Summer Academy in August 2012.

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3 Responses to IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?: synchronic vs diachronic ontologies



  3. The paper’s many references to Althusser are unhelpful.

    You seem to jump to conclusions wheny stating that «We cannot touch the harmanian table (for we can never touch any real object) nor even know it.» Yes, Harman says that «The real is something that cannot be known, only loved». But is there love without touch? How does one love a table – by not using it?

    Just a remark: Harman talks about «scientific» – and not (as it sometimes becomes in the paper) about «scienctism». I think «scientism» all too easily falls into the dichotomy between scientific versus humanistic – a dichotomy that Harman IMO tries to transcend.


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