HARMAN’S WHISTLE: speaking outside of declarative language

FACTS VERSUS OBJECTS: on the limits of the « obvious »

For the early Wittgenstein « The world divides into facts, not things », for OOO the world divides into objects (this is what Harman in THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT calls the point of view of « naiveté »).

The point of the Wittgenstein quote is to show that it is by no means obvious that the world is made of objects, as Harman maintains, because Wittgenstein thought it was obvious that the world is composed of assemblages of objects in relation, called « facts ».

I do not come down here on the side of either one, but conclude that their disagreement shows that neither position is universally « obvious ». Wittgenstein concluded from this problem of the obvious that what he was trying to say amounted to trying to go beyond the limits of language, and could only be communicated indirectly, by « showing » rather than saying.

SAYING VERSUS SHOWING: on the limits of expression

This leads us to a second point: if something is ineffable it can’t be said, and it can’t be « whistled » either, unless you do a great deal of explaining or inventing of new concepts. (This point was mathematician/philosopher Frank Ramsay’s objection to Wittgenstein’s TRACTATUS views.

This objection led to Wittgenstein’s abandoning of his earlier ideas, and to producing his later language-games model practised in the Philosophical Investigations. The result was to relativise the notion of saying and showing to the particular language game that was being played. Harman has not gone through a similar conceptual revolution.


I alluded above to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous apophatic conclusion to his TRACTATUS LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS:

« Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent ».

I also cited  Frank Ramsay’s famous reply:

« What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either »

The problem with both these positions is that they are pronounced absolutely.


In THE THIRD TABLE, Harman situates the real object, emblematised by his « third » table, in an epistemological and linguistic space, that is « deeper » than the everyday object and the humanist’s object, and above the scientific object:

By locating the third table (and to repeat, this is the only real table) in a space between the « table » as particles and the « table » in its effects on humans  we have apparently found a table that can be verified in no way at all, whether by science or by tangible effects in the human sphere. Yes – and that is precisely the point. (11-12).

The table is not just untouchable, it is also unverifiable, which in Harman’s epistemology seems to mean that it is unknowable, as he adds

The real is something that cannot be known, only loved  (12).

Loving the table is to be understood in terms of the « erotic model » (15), whose principal feature seems to be a knowledge and a language of indirectness and obliquity.


This indirect access, oblique knowing and allusive language are the consequences of the ontological « withdrawal » of the object. For Harman at the ontological level withdrawal is principled, univocal, absolute, atemporal, and universal, and has no need to be verified or tested.

For me withdrawal is empirical, multiple, relative, historical, and variable, it is an hypothesis and must be tested on a case to case basis, not presupposed as prevailing always and everywhere.


I am all for going beyond limits, including the limits of expression, wherever that is possible. This is an empirical question, habits are not necessarily laws of nature, we cannot legislate in advance or draw absolute demarcations

There are indeed limits to expression, but they cannot be enounced purely speculatively, and many limits can be surpassed, so we are not confined to just allusion and metaphor but have at our disposal a multitude of expressive possibilities.

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Un commentaire pour HARMAN’S WHISTLE: speaking outside of declarative language

  1. dmf dit :

    « For me withdrawal is empirical, multiple, relative, historical, and variable, it is an hypothesis and must be tested on a case to case basis, not presupposed as prevailing always and everywhere. »
    exactly, John didn’t have much to say so don’t really have a sense of his take on things but the other two don’t seem to really grasp the texts/figures they invoke, left you carrying all the work of thinking things thru which I appreciate you trying to take up.


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