Object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman judges the sciences, the humanities, and common sense in terms of the crude philosophical criteria of another age and finds them lacking in knowledge of reality. He posits a shadowy “withdrawn” realm of real objects and qualities in order to explain the discrepancies between his naive abstract model of knowledge as “access” and the concrete reality of the sciences. Unfortunately, nothing can be said about this realm of real objects, which are by definition ineffable, forever inaccessible behind the veil of withdrawal. Later works by Harman such as THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT, THE THIRD TABLE and BELLS AND WHISTLES, like the whole of his philosophy, are the record of his noticing the discrepancies between his model and what it is supposed to be modeling, but refusing to revise the model. Harman’s solution, object-oriented philosophy, is a dead-end, the timid, nostalgic, and fundamentally misleading propounding of an antiquated epistemology under the cover of a “new” ontology.
In this paper I consider the ontologies of Louis Althusser, Graham Harman, and Paul Feyerabend. I begin by “deconstructing” the title and explaining that Feyerabend does not usually use the noun “ontology”, although he sometimes calls his position “ontological” realism. He prefers to talk about this position as indifferently a “general methodology” or a “general cosmology”, and he seems to be be hostile to the very enterprise of ontology, conceived of as “school philosophy”. I then go on to sketch out a different type of ontology than the classical notion rejected by Feyerabend. I call this a “diachronic ontology”, and argue that it is the sort of ontology that Feyerabend would have accepted. A diachronic ontology is very different from ontology as ordinarily conceived, which one could call by contrast a synchronic ontology, an ontology having no room for the dialogue with Being, but that simply presupposes that Being is already and always there without our contribution. To illustrate this concept of synchronic ontology, I discuss the very similar “ontologies” (in fact onto-epistemologies) of Louis Althusser and of Graham Harman as typical exemplars of synchronic ontology. During this discussion I give a close reading of Harman’s recent book THE THIRD TABLE. Harman’s OOP and Althusserianism share the same ontology of real objects and ideological or “sensual” objects, the same critique of the problematic of the subject (now called “correlationism”) and the same utterly inadequate epistemology, incapable of explaining scientific progress. I then discuss Feyerabend’s ideas in his later philosophy, as showing a different way for ontology, that of a diachronic ontology, in which there is no stable framework and no fixed path. I conclude with a discussion of Andrew Pickering’s essay NEW ONTOLOGIES, which makes a similar distinction to mine, expressing it in the imagistic terms of a De Kooningian (diachronic) versus a Mondrianesque (synchronic) approach.
THE THIRD TABLE is very interesting and revealing, as it contains a concise overview of the central themes and arguments 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 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 (scientific, artistic, or everyday) 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. These criteria are heuristic rules of thumb that allow us to evaluate diverse 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 this set of criteria: it is a monist, synchronic, cataphatic, and anti-democratic ideology.