THE THIRD TABLE: a failed metaphysical posit

This is my review of Graham Harman’s little book THE THIRD TABLE (Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012). In this book Harman gives an account of Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous two tables argument, and posits the existence of a “third table” to exemplify Harman’s purportedly new and non-reductionist approach to the real. I argue that his account of each of the three tables is ultimately unsatisfying.

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 both to Eddington’s two table argument and to C.P.Snow’s notion of the two cultures.

Eddington’s argument contrasts the familiar, solid, substantial table known to common sense with the the strange 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 declares that neither table is real, both are “utter shams”, and posits the existence of a “third table”, the only real one, existing in a withdrawn mode, “deeper” than all apparent objects. This real table is meant to exemplify the sort of object revealed by OOP’s new nonreductionist approach. It exemplifies rather OOP’s monism.

These real objects are radically non-empirical, they are invisible, inaudible, untouchable, undetectable by any scientific process, unimaginable, and unknowable. They are not even subject to time, which Harman declares to be unreal.This is what constitutes OOP as a synchronic ontology.

Real objects are forever inaccessible, hidden behind an impenetrable veil of “withdrawal”. There is no conceivable mode of access to them, nor method of gaining knowledge about them. However their existence can be known to the object-oriented philosopher by means of an unspecified intellectual intuition and alluded to indirectly by artistic means. This is OOP’s élitism.

Finally, I compare Harman’s OOP with Paul Feyerabend’s ontology and conclude that OOP is a naïve, dogmatic, and self-contradictory form of negative theology. It is caught in the contradiction of affirming the unknowability of the real, and of somehow knowing that it is constituted of objects. This is OOP’s self-contradicting apophaticism. It is a cataphatic onto-theology presented as if it were apophatic.

In conclusion, the ontological investigations undertaken on this blog have crystallised around four criteria, in favour of an ontology that is pluralist, diachronic, apophatic, and democratic. This allows us to evaluate contemporary philosophical research programmes in terms of their degree and mode of satisfaction of each of these criteria. Harman’s OOP is a complete failure when examined in terms of these criteria: it is a monist, synchronic, cataphatic, and anti-democratic ideology.

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