TERENCE BLAKE’S REVIEW OF GRAHAM HARMAN’S “THE THIRD TABLE”

I wrote my review of Graham Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE before I had fully elaborated my critique of OOO. THE THIRD TABLE is very interesting and revealing, as it contains a concise overview of the central themes of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. The style is quite engaging as Harman manages to expound his ideas in the form of a response to Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous two table argument.

This argument famously contrasts the familiar solid, substantial table of common sense with the the insubstantial swarm of particles moving rapidly in what is mostly empty space that constitutes the table as modern physics envisages it. Referring to Eddington’s classical argument allows Harman to couch his own analysis in terms of a running engagement with reductionism, in both its humanistic and scientistic forms.

To overcome the conflict between Eddington’s two tables, Harman posits the existence of a “third table”, the only real table, that is meant to exemplify his OOP’s new nonreductionist approach to objects. In my review I argue that Harman’s account of each of the three tables is very unsatisfying.

Finally, I compare Harman’s OOP with Paul Feyerabend’s ontology, and I conclude that OOP is a naïve and dogmatic form of negative theology.

I am quite pleased with my review, but I would like to rewrite it, taking into account what I have learnt since then. All suggestions are welcome.

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3 Responses to TERENCE BLAKE’S REVIEW OF GRAHAM HARMAN’S “THE THIRD TABLE”

  1. JH says:

    Your critique is a very succinct and insightful in addressing where OOO falls short. Your reference to the poet, Kenneth White, was especially very helpful in that, it lets us see that even though OOO seems to espouse an erotic model of objects, it remains within a very narrow theoretical discourse. Maybe this is why the work of Harman I admire the most is his WIERD REALISM, the book on Lovecraft, since Harman actually does try to, and unwillingly does, step outside of his negative theology to engage in an encounter.

    Yet, I think your critique is not charitable at all, since I do think Harman deserves a certain credit in proposing the Third Table, though he caricatures Eddington in the process. Yes, both “overmined” and “undermined” tables, that of the ‘humanists’ and ‘physicists’, as emergent forms, do not let themselves to stay in a destined level on a stage which OOO sets itself for its convenience. However, I do think there is a certain merit in proposing a version of a table which does not let itself be touched by any human discourse. As my motivation here is more Leibnizian, I cannot say I endorse Harman’s concept of withdrawal, but I do think the Third Table allows us to imagine a table which can potentially shape itself into being and be structured without reliance on external actions.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    I too like Harman’s WEIRD REALISM more than his other books, although I cannot really say I “admire” it. As to THE THIRD TABLE, I welcome Harman’s rejection of scientism, but I think his actual critique is disastrous, by introducing an even more dogmatic element: the unexperienceable, unknowable real object. His critique of “undermining” does not apply to the physics of the 20th Century and after, as objects are not broken down into smaller components: waves are bigger than the objects that they compose, and “composition” is the wrong term as physics talks about configurations and arrangements. His picture of “overmining” is similarly flawed, as it is more a grab-bag for philosophies he does not like but that he cannot accuse of undermining. Both Badiou’s mathematism and Latour’s relationism are supposedly members of this category. Harman’s notion of “withdrawal” is simply incoherent, a picture-word to plaster over a gaping hole, where a lot of conceptual work is needed.

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  3. In the review you quote passages from Eddington’s text to show that Harman has given an unfair account of his scientific table. However, to me, that did not come accross as convincing. How does it matters that Harman paraphrases Eddinton’s scientific description to be that the table consists of «tiny particles invisible to the eye»? Here your reading is definitely not friendly and your arguments (therefore?) miss the point.

    For Harman, the issue is that a scientific description, no matter how complete, do not describe the “real” table. It might be that you touch Harman’s issue when you talk about Feyerabend’s “diachronic ontology”. But other thant that, the review seems to not comment on the following:

    When stating how the real (that is: the third) table differs form the first and the second, Harman says that if one removes something from the (real) table (e.g. if one cuts a corner or remove a foot), the (real) table remains the same object. What Harman thus (indirectly) says is that Eddition’s scientific table would not be the same table after such a destruction. To which we must agree, not? Hence the scientific description is, in this sense, a reduction compared with the real table – which we do not know (since we do not know its future history … and may be not its past either).

    Incidently, Noam Chomsky once discussed how much you can do to (that is: how much you can alter/pollute/redirect etc) the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts before it stops being the Charles River (see: http://www.alternet.org/video/brilliant-mind-noam-chomskyheading-movie-theater-near-you ) Chomsky says that our perception of these things «have to do with very complex notions of continuity of entities a physicist cannot detect».

    So humans, whether humanists or everyday people, can accept big changes to objects – changes that do not alter the identity of the objects. (Btw, would be interesting to read what Harman has to say about «identity» vs «object».)

    It might be that your points were deeper than I immediately was able to grasp. To my excuse, I got hung up with the superficial side of your points of critique …

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