IT IS IMPORTANT TO DISCUSS OOO PRECISELY BECAUSE IT IS UNIMPORTANT
Graham Harman’s OOO relies on an impression of concreteness that it does not live up to. Harman says that real objects cannot be sensed, imagined, or cognized. So we should draw the obvious conclusion that they cannot be studied either. Harman tries to get around this difficulty by his talk of “indirect” relations, but real objects withdraw from relations, and “indirect” here has no conceptual content, only rhetorical. In almost all places where he considers the distinction between real and sensual, Harman talks about real objects and sensual objects. He does not talk about real and sensual aspects of the same object.
Very often a reader of Harman’s OOO forms a vague idea of what Harman “must” mean, and neglects the texts. I advise everyone to read THE THIRD TABLE and most of their illusions about OOO will disappear.
I welcome Harman’s rejection of scientism, but the terms of his critique are conceptually disastrous, introducing an even more dogmatic element: the invisible, untouchable, and unknowable real object. His critique of scientistic reductionism as “undermining” does not apply to the physics of the 20th Century and after.
Harman’s definition of “undermining” involves decomposing an object into smaller parts, and this is inadequate to modern science. When I claim that Harman’s vision of science, insofar as it is contained in his definition of “undermining”, is pre-quantum physics and pre-relativity, and even pre-Maxwellian wave mechanics, I do not make any questionable use of modern physical theories. I just appeal to the fact that quantum physics is a form of wave mechanics, and not atomistic in Harman’s sense. Objects are not broken down into smaller components: waves are bigger than the objects that they compose. “Composition” is the wrong term as physics talks about configurations and arrangements.
Harman’s picture of “overmining” is similarly flawed, it is more a vague universal term for philosophies he does not like but that he cannot accuse of undermining. Alain Badiou’s mathematism and Bruno Latour’s relationism are supposedly members of this category, when their philosophies precede his in proposing a far more coherent and effective critique of scientism.
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. Strictly speaking, the thesis that objects withdraw from relations entails that objects withdraw from facts, with facts being the existence of a set of relations between objects. Such an existence is temporal, even in the case of universal or eternal facts (relating to all times). Harman’s real objects have no relation to time, and are strictly a-temporal.
Harman proposes a third “real table” and calls the table of common sense and that of science “unreal”, “shams”. He really does that in the book THE THIRD TABLE, I am not making this up, his philosophy is that bad. It is not at all a question of an object not being completely exhausted (whatever that may mean) by the knowledge relation, and so being only incompletely understood, but of not being understandable by common sense or the humanities or science.
The idealism comes in when he posits an unsenseable, unknowable “real” table seized only by his intellectual intuition and “indirectly” (once again a word that does no work, but that suggests intermediaries when none are proposed and when they are forbidden by his basic ontology). Harman subtracts all sensory and cognized qualities, so he preserves nothing.
Harman’s philosophy posits “objects” of such abstraction (invisible, untouchable, unknowable, withdrawn from all relation, a-temporal, a-spatial, and a-numerical (there is no way to count real objects, and the very idea of applying numerical predicates to them is incoherent). Harman’s OOO has no room for facts, and cannot account for the even the most ordinary of states of affairs.
It is important to note that the real table is not just “unthinkable for us”, but unthinkable in principle (in Harman’s system). It cannot be referred to, as reference is itself a relation. Harman uses terms very loosely and sloppily, often conflating relation and interaction, for example. My paper IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID? needs to be supplemented by my analysis of THE THIRD TABLE, which makes the discussion more specific. I do not polemicise, I take Harman at his word and argue that it is incoherent. Then, to highlight his incoherence, I consider one alternative philosophy, Feyerabend’s pluralistic ontology. I also situate OOO in a historical narrative going back to Althusser’s structuralism and extending to Deleuze and beyond. In other articles I extend that narrative, and the comparison, by considering the philosophies of Badiou, Latour, and Laruelle.
On my terminology: I call Harman’s OOO a “monist idealism”. It is monist, firstly because it rules out all the other tables than his own posited table as “unreal”. Secondly, there is no way of counting or even differentiating “real” objects on his account, as all qualities and relations, sensed or known, have been subtracted ex hypothesi. It is idealist because its only method is intellectual intuition, its objects are pure noetic correlates of that intuition, and all material qualities, including numericity (countability) and temporal relations, have been subtracted.
Why do I still write about OOO? Because it is still there, and it is still leading people into error by dishonest presentations of itself and of recent philosophical history. Further, it has tried to publicise itself by all means and at the same time to stifle, or to travesty, all opposition. A typical argument Harman uses, when he cannot just ignore the existence of objections, is what I have called “tonal criticism”. All arguments have their conceptual content removed, and are reduced to their “tone”, and surprisingly enough, the tone is declared “hostile”. Another argument, which Pete Wolfendale was subjected to as well, is: if OOO is so unimportant, why are you talking about it? OOO does not merit much discussion in itself, but principally because of the misplaced importance it has received.
I am aware that for many people who admire a philosophy it is painful when someone comes along and argues that the philosophy is incoherent and that they have been misled by the propaganda about it, or by not thinking through the implications. The temptation is strong to blame the messenger. However, this is all part of what philosophy is all about.