HARMAN’S OOO: realism or materialism?

Some people have complained that my post on Harman’s materialism was ill-inspired and unclear, mere “nastiness” or an exercise in “word-bending”. I wish to reassure them:         no such extraordinary affects or techniques are involved in my analysis, just the ordinary work of conceptual investigation.

My argument is that in the Continental tradition “materialism” is very often defined in formal terms as (1) realism (epistemological criterion) plus (2) mind-independence (ontological criterion), rather than in material terms of (1) the reducibility of everything to (2) physical stuff (hard matter, physical bodies, superstrings, etc. This is not “nasty” or bent and twisted reasoning. A quick look in THE MEILLASSOUX DICTIONARY gives a ready example (page 111-112):

Meillassoux names his philosophical position speculative materialism. In After Finitude he offers a concise determination of this term:

“Every materialism that would be speculative, and hence for which absolute reality is an entity without thought, must assert both that thought is not necessary (something can be independently of thought), and that thought can think what there must be when there is no thought. The materialism that chooses to follow the speculative path is thereby constrained to believe that it is possible to think a given reality by abstracting from the fact that we are thinking it”. (AF, 36)

This determination includes two conditions:
1 ) the materialist must hold that ‘thought is not necessary’ (something can be independently of thought);
2) the speculative materialist must assert that ‘thought can think what there must be when there is no thought’ .
A materialist position thus meets an ontological criterion : the independence of being from thought. Speculation abides by an epistemological criterion : it affirms the capacity of thought to access an absolute. Note that these are formal criteria: they do not commit Meillassoux to a definition of ‘matter’, to any stance on the composition of bodies or the existence of elementary corpuscles, nor to the eliminative reduction of emotional or intellectual phenomena. They do not tether Meillassoux’s philosophy to one or another model of physical reality.

Harman is quite aware of this definition as he cites the same passage from Meillassoux in his book QUENTIN MEILLASSOUX PHILOSOPHY IN THE MAKING, page 23. Harman may not share this definition, but he cannot oblige others to abandon it in favour of his own defintion.

Once the definitional question is settled, I turn to a rather simple argument that Harman’s philosophy can be legitimately characterised as “materialist”, as Edward Hackett did in his original article. All I need to establish here is that Hackett’s claim cannot be ruled out as just wrong, as Harman attempts to do. Of course the same caveat applies to Hackett as to Harman: he cannot oblige others to use his definition either. However, something like the definition I give above is used not only by Meillassoux but also by Zizek and Badiou. To be unaware of this acception is to condemn oneself to misunderstanding much of the debate on this point.

(In the book NEW MATERIALISM, Meillassoux re-iterates his formal definition: “for me, materialism holds in two key statements: 1. Being is separate and independent of thought (understood in the broad sense of subjectivity), 2. Thought can think Being”).

I am not the only one to argue that Harman’s explicit philosophy is undermined by (1) the absence of any method (2) the unreality of time. However, I present the consequence of these flaws very clearly: a surface materialism is undercut by a deeper idealsm. This is not “denying” Harman for denial’s sake, just arguing he is mistaken.

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5 Responses to HARMAN’S OOO: realism or materialism?

  1. Chen says:

    While I agree with your view on Harman’s Philosophy I suppose I would quibble as well, Terence . What precludes an Objective idealist – say a reformed Hegel, modernized – from adhering to (1) and (2)? Heck, I don’t see where the great American philosopher, Charles Peirce, would have a problem with 1 and 2. But he styled himself an objective idealist at times. And, in fact, wrote a highly critical essay of Berkeley in which, if memory serves, the realism he appealed to was the Scholastic Realism of the Medievals!

    I’ve always had a problem with the notion that Idealism is the opposite of Realism. Idealists can be just as much realists; they just happen to have a different ontology. Defining Materialism “rather than in material terms of (1) the reducibility of everything to (2) physical stuff (hard matter, physical bodies, superstrings, etc. ” compounds the problem for me…for then the realist idealist ( who doesn’t believe esse is percipi) is simply defined out of the debate. If the material definition of Materialism creates problem for saying ‘Thought is real – actual’ ( or, arguably precludes affirming the reality of thinking) we have to allow that argument without immediately thinking that the person is saying only thought is real.

    Conversely, we should also allow a Materialism, defined in material terms, to reply that it can accommodate thought or even affirm its reality with said definition – and whatever qualifiers. This is what I tend to focus on in the Idealism/Materialism issue…not one of Realism but ontology. Now, rhetoric on either side might confound and does confuse the issue because either side can bicker about who is really a ‘realist’ but the interesting to me is pondering what the ontological quality of the universe. I think Materialisms – in material terms- simply don’t make sense but then Berkeley’s Idealism doesn’t either. What to do….

    Finally, specific to Meillassoux, is the idea is that ‘thought’ ‘ thinking’ ‘subjectivity’ never needed to exist and by that criterion alone rules out any kind of realist Idealism? ….which, still, rubs me wrong because if we grant it does then regardless if it was necessary or not, ontologically, the fact that ‘Thought’ can be or become would rule out hardcore, reductionist materialism which explicitly and viscerally denies thinking, thought, or subjectivity. There is a tension here, I think.

    Meillassoux is trying to splinter ‘Being’ and ‘Thought’ so as to block the Idealist argument from the reality of thought to some sort of notion that, ultimately, Being is ‘thought-like’. He seems to want to demonstrate that thought can think being without being in anyway apart of or ‘like’ Being. Not a bad way to proceed at all.

    The issue, however, is how much really hangs the independence criterion “….thought is not necessary’ (something can be independently of thought)”. Is the denial of this an immediate affirmation of Bishop Berkeley? Meillassoux tries very hard to make this the case. I just don’t agree – it depends on what work “necessary” and “independence” are doing. I don’t see a contradiction in affirming (1) the universe might never have had thinking beings and (2) Materialism ( defined in ‘material terms’) is false. For (1) by itself doesn’t say what the universe is capable of, its nature or ability

    My two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. terenceblake says:

    I think there is a lot of confusion on this subject because many discussions mix together formal criteria and material criteria. On the above criteria an Idealist can be a realist (epistemological criterion), but cannot be a reductive or eliminative materialist. However, if we take materialism in the formal sense, and distinguish objective mind from individual or collective subjective mind, then the answer is ambiguous.


  3. mark says:

    The problem with metaphysics is a bit like arguing whether light is a wave or particle – it largely comes down to how you observe it.

    I’m surprised that Harman’s OOO is still a thing really, I would have thought he would have been discredited by now. I don’t think much of Harman’s analysis of Heidegger, namely how two inanimate objects “withdrawl” from one another? How does that actually happen? How does my water bottle made of metal sitting on my wooden desk withdraw from each other? Are they cognisant? The answer is no that is stupid. No matter how hard or convoluted a philosophical system people might want to graft on that proposition, it is stupid. It doesn’t work. Those who continue push OOO are grasping at straws.

    I enjoy reading your blog – all the best


    Liked by 1 person

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