Harman’s philosophising begins from a point where relativist arguments have weakened the presumption in favour of scientism, and a refutation that presupposes the validity of scientism will have no effect on those who have seen through its presuppositions and who recoil from the descent into the chaos of private subjective worlds and of inter-subjective incommunicability that this rejection of scientism seems to entail.
For behind the question of correlationism lies the problem of the obstacle to dialogue, communication, discussion, and exchange posed by the existence of incommensurable systems of thought and worldviews. Graham Harman’s OOP tries to provide an answer to this problem, but the solution he proposes is unacceptable as it universalises the problem rather than resolving it.
One thing that is often lacking in critiques of SR/OOO is that they do not give a positive account of the attraction that Harman’s philosophy exercised over many people at the beginning. I do not think that “correlationism” as such was ever the main issue, but that underlying this pseudo-problem is the more fundamental problem posed by the existence of incommensurability and of communicative closure between different ontologies or understandings of Being.
This problem is part of the heritage of the later Heidegger, that Harman tried to undercut with his generalisation of tool-being. This sort of incommensurability seems to lead to a radical relativism, and to the impossibility of explaining the changes in worldview that have occurred historically, or that can be found in an individual’s personal history. By proposing a solution to this problem Harman gave the impression that getting acquainted with the principles of his philosophy (and with its numerous epicycles) was very much worth the effort.
I can testify that I deeply felt the problem, and that is why I turned to Harman’s book TOOL-BEING for a solution. I had initially been drawn to the contemporary restatement of Heidegger’s incommensurable plurality of understandings of Being that is to be found in Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s book ALL THINGS SHINING, but I found that they did not confront the problems of dialogue and of theory-change.
Looking for alternative accounts and new solutions, I discovered Harman’s work and I was at first impressed by his freedom of style and I was inspired by his proposed solution. Tool-being was universalised to give us what amounts to a new philosophy of Nature, where there are no incommensurable boundaries thanks to the primacy of objects over the frameworks that attempt to grasp them.
However, I soon realised that the solution was worse than the problem it was supposed to resolve. Harman’s account generalised the problem of incommensurability to all beings, treated as vacuum-packed “objects” sealed off from all relation, unable to interact except by a magical ad hoc process called “vicarious causation”. I came to see that Heidegger had already proposed his own solution to this problem in his thing-paradigm, which is of the same type as the various philosophies of assemblage extending from Feyerabend through Deleuze to Latour. In these theories the existence of incommensurability is recognised, and it is admitted that it can occasionally prevent communication.
Yet, if we take assemblages as primary then incommensurability exists only as a level of abstraction where certain elements of the process of interaction are isolated out and frozen into structures that are regarded as the essence of what is going on. In other words, the problem is a local and historical artefact rather than a universal predicament. In a wider ontology, such as we find in the work of Paul Feyerabend, Gilles Deleuze, and Bernard Stiegler (see my essay IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?), the “correlational circle” never gets formed, so there is no need of special means for dissolving it or for going outside.
In my own writings on OOO I argue that correlationism is not only hermeneutically useless but incoherent as a concept, and that it is a disguised yet inferior imitation of the concept of the “problematic of the subject” already deployed critically by the structuralists (and here I would include Karl Popper among the structuralists). It has no pertinence for a critique of the post-structuralists, who have left the problem it ineptly tries to describe far behind. I prefer to examine Harman in contemporary terms, without his legitimating meta-narrative on the history of philosophy, and to show how incoherent his system is, and that it is in fact a simplistic de-temporalised travesty, or “synchronic shadow”, of recent philosophies such as that of Bruno Latour, Bernard Stiegler, and François Laruelle.