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.