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OOO'S ABANDON OF SPECULATION ABOUT THE REAL

Imagine a contemporary philosophy whose theses are totally counter-intuitive, verging on the
ridiculous, denying reality to even the most familiar objects of every day experience. Suppose
further that no method is given to support or to test such unfamiliar assertions, other than an appeal
to an intellectual intuition that is to say the least not universally shared. How can one make such a
philosophy seem tenable !ne method is to avoid comparing this philosophy to the world, to
bypass considering whether its theses are true, and to engage principally in meta-discussions. !ne
does not examine the lineaments of the world it projects, and instead immerses it in a series of
bookish comparisons with philosophical positions that can be related to it historically and"or
formally.
Harman#s !!! is just such a philosophy. It denies the reality of every single aspect of our
experience, including that of time. $et paradoxically Harman accuses other philosophies of losing
sight of the concrete world of objects, and of being incapable of explaining change. %ar from
provoking hilarity, such a revision of our most basic assumptions has encountered adhesion not only
among artists, literary theorists, anthropologists, architects, and digital artisans, but also among a
dispersed but vocal community of philosophers.&he most fre'uent response has been to welcome
Harman#s contribution and to discourse learnedly about the (great promise( of !!! if only it could
be freed of its residual )latonism. !ne writes five or ten or fifty pages on the (problem of temporal
relations( in Harman#s !!!, comparing his view to that of Heidegger, *hitehead, +atour, and of
course to ,ant and to -ristotle. &hus a sort of (meta-credence( is given not just to an impossible
series of unsupported and wildly implausible theses, but also to one#s own scholarly competence.
I am in fact in favour of such seemingly cra.y leaps of speculation, and I believe that without them
there would be no progress not just in philosophy, but also in the arts and the science, and in life in
general. /ounter-intuitive speculation what the philosopher of science %eyerabend discusses under
the name of 0counter-induction1, arguing that it is a key methodological procedure in the conduct of
science. He demonstrates that many important figures in the history of science, including 2alileo
and 3instein made use of counter-inductive hypotheses and went against the evidence of the senses
and the findings of observation, and had to do so in order to open up implicit common sense
assumptions to criti'ue and modification. However, he emphasised that counter-inductive
manoeuvres were to be used in view of increasing testability and of improving our knowledge of
the real. /ounter-induction for its own sake, leading to hypotheses that are then protected from all
criticism, counter-inductive speculation that misrepresents itself as its opposite, as 0naivet41 5see
the beginning of Harman6s &H3 %!78%!+9 !:;3/&< is to be excluded as increasing the already
considerable burden of dogmatism and immobilism in the world.
*hat I object to in the case of Harman#s philosophy is the immunising procedure of learnedly
discussing !!! at the meta-level by comparing it to other more or less similar hypotheses forming
a contextual array. =ot only does this serve to defuse criticism, but it also dilutes our apprehension
of the theory6s cra.iness, as it seems to be just one variation of an extended array of more or less
e'ually tenable positions. &his comparatist meta-assemblage commentary 0de-cra.ifies1 the
conjecture, and reinforces its subtraction from all tests, even conceptual ones.
&hus it is that Harman6s !!! is rarely stated without a deceptive rhetorical wrapping. However, its
principle ideas lead to extremely unacceptable conse'uences. %or Harman everything we perceive
and know is illusion, belonging to a (sensual( realm of (utter shams(. In particular, time is an
illusion. +iterature, science, common sense are all a dream. History is a dream. /hange is a dream.
8eal change is impossible. !bjects cannot be distinguished by any known, perceived, or imaginable
property or relation. !bjects withdraw from relation. >athematical relations are no exception.
!bjects are non-relational. 9ifference is no exception, not even bare numerical difference. &here is
only one object 5in a non-relational, and therefore non-numerical sense of 0one1<. &his object is
cogni.ed by intellectual intuition, its very existence a bold conjecture, in plain words an
unsupported guess. &he conjecture not only is not supported, it cannot be supported, since there is
no referential and no inferential relation going from the unreal to the real, as the real is non-
relational 50withdrawn1<.
!ne often fails to note that Harman#s thesis is not 0!bjects withdraw from each other1, but 0!bjects
withdraw from relation1. &ime as we know it in the common sense world and in modern science is
relational, containing chronological, kinetic, and dynamic relations, thus Harman correctly deaws
the conclusion that time is unreal. 7nfortunately Harman fails to see that the same applies to space,
to any space that we may perceive or conceive, so he cannot hold on to space to mitigate the non-
relationality of absolute withdrawal. -rithmetic too is relational, therefore his objects are non-
numerical. 2iven his theory of allusion we may talk about the 0one1 object, but even this use of
0one1 is a metaphor.
In a very interesting blog post ;on /ogburn seems to imply that his article written in collaboration
with >ark -llan !hm, -/&7-+ ?7-+I&I3S !% I>-2I=-&I@3 &HI=2S, contains a reply to
=athan :rown#s criti'ue of Harman#s !!! as being conceptually incoherent. /ogburn and !hm#s
article puts emphasis on the historical problem context for !!! and on the progression of
arguments. &his context and argument based approach is very commendable. :ut as to the ontology
of !!!, the text remains very much on the meta-meta-level. &hey compare and contrast A sorts of
!!!B withdrawal ontology 5Harman<, capacity metaphysics 5:ryant, /ogburn, and Silcox<,
differential ontology 52arcia<.
However /ogburn and !hm do not say much about the actual ontologies, especially Harman6s
5despite :rown6s main point being the conceptual incoherence of Harman6s !!!<. &hey then go on
to say that these A positions are 0pure1 ontologies giving rise to a multitude of 0regional1
ontologies. I am glad that they say so, as this has been my analysis from the very beginning of my
writing on the subject, that Harman6s !!! is not so much an ontology as a meta-ontology. So I am
happy to receive indirect confirmation from them on this point.
- second thesis that I argue for is that the by now classic 0withdrawal1 ontology is in its very nature
incompatible with regional ontologies, unless they are asserted as belonging to the realm of illusion,
to the domain of 0phantoms and simulacra1 as Harman calls it in his :3++S -=9 *HIS&+3S.
&his tension is also what =athan :rown6s discussion adumbrates. /ogburn and !hm give indirect
credence to this in their discussion of Harman6s possible counter-criti'ue of capacity metaphysics as
reductionist.
&his confirms as well a third thesis of mine, that capacity metaphysics is not in fact a 0pure1
ontology in Harman6s terms, but is already only one possible instantiation of Harman6s meta-
ontology 5I have constantly made this claim in comparing :ryant6s and Harman6s ontologes<. &hat
is to say that capacity metaphysics is a concrete instantiation of pure !!!, and so is necessarily in
conflict with its basic principles, and must necessarily be criticised by Harman#s !!! as being
reductionist, despite its being at a higher level of generality than the various regional ontologies.
/ogburn and !hm#s exposition of these three ontologies, despite remaining fairly allusive, does not
dispel the claim of conceptual incoherence, but rather confirms it. &here is no way out of this
problem as long as one retains Harman6s notion of absolute withdrawal. /ogburn and !hm do a
great job of explaining withdrawal in terms of a primacy of normative modal properties and
relations. :ut absolute withdrawal doubles up not just objects 5into real and sensual< but also
doubles properties and relations. Such a concept of withdrawal produces too much ontological
clutter, and Harman#s real objects, properties, and relations do not only multiply entities
unnecessarily by providing them all with inaccessible duplicates, they also de-temporalise the
world, whereas /ogburn and !hm#s alethic and deontic possibilities and permissibilities comport a
temporal aspect. &his is behind their unwillingness to take on Harman6s full-blown fourfold
ontology.
&hus /ogburn and !hm confirm my tentative suggestion that one possible way out of Harman#s
aporia of the real as an a-temporal innaccessible realm of duplicates of sensual entities 5where
(sensual( means scientific, social and common sense< would have to be dropping the notion of
absolute withdrawal. However one must not ignore the price that must be paid for that. &he price is
the recognition that Harman is talking past himself i.e. that Harman as meta-metaphysician
5ontology of withdrawal< is talking past himself as metaphysician 5ontology of autonomous objects<
and vice versa.
- higher price for absolute withdrawal is paid in what /ogburn and !hm euphemistically call
0externali.ing1, and that is, in Harman6s case, the generali.ation of the bifurcation of nature into
every single interaction. If as they call it 0the advent of 2arcia1 helps them in their struggle to
redefine !!! as an autonomy ontology involving only weak or relative withdrawal rather than a
withdrawal meta-ontology, I can see the advantage in they may find in insisting on the importance
of that movement.
*e are now witnessing the entry of !!! into a new phase, that of established paradigm for a wide
ranging series of comparisons that presuppose the conceptual coherence of its basic theses.
Harman#s particular ideas can even be safely contested on the basis of the object-orientation that
they express without exhausting. -n object-attitude is now more important than any particular
thesis, as articles like /ogburn and !hm#s, and books like )eter 2ratton#s, present !!! as an array
of options within the wider array of Speculative 8ealism.
2raham Harman#s theses are absurdB this is an open secret, and none of his major acolytes contests
the fact of this absurdity. Invisible, untouchable, inaccessible phantomatic (real( objects, in the
name of which !!! can declare that the common sense table, the scientific table, and the
sociological table are unreal, mere shams. &ime itself declared to be unreal by means of a method of
objectal intuition that cannot be specified, yet alone justified. - pseudo-concept of absolute
(withdrawal( whose definition cannot be clearly stated without its self-refuting nature being
apparent to all. !ne of the most simplistic abstract and static ontologies imaginable packaged as its
opposite. =obody believes this pseudo-philosophical abracadabra, and noone makes any attempt to
defend it.
Hence the almost complete absence of any critical discussion of fundamental concepts and theses.
9oes +evi :ryant reject every major thesis of Harman#s ontology So be it - as long as he keeps to
the object-attitude, !!! has been not contested but supplemented, not refuted but enriched, not
weakened but reinforced and protected by the addition of a further variant. $et variation inside the
disciplinary matrix of a pre-validated framework is not individuation, it is merely a supplement of
normalisation.
*hen one begins to see the mimetic resonances between an array made up of a seemingly dispersed
ensemble of blogs that are content to refer to each other only sporadically, one is properly horrified
by the pretence of scholarly objectivity and the affectation of academic reference and argument. +et
an unknowing en'uirer enter into this charmed collegial circle and he must either admire the
beautiful clothes of the emperor or suffer the mimetic defence strategy of sneer, snob, and silent
s'uee.e.
How does one choose one day to become !!! How can it seem that one#s unrecompensed fidelity
to +acan or to 9errida or to &uring can be seamlessly transformed into a more narcissistically
lucrative investment in a ridiculous ontology that relies on systematic ambiguity and intellectual
e'uivocation to entice people into the adoption of a toxic lexic of empty passwords and pseudo-
arguments 9o the more experienced acolytes not see how tame, domesticated and possessive they
have become +et someone come along who is not impressed by their tutelary vocabulary and
references, and they 'uickly lose their much vaunted bonhomie and generosity, their collegial
politeness.
!ften I am toldB (If you do not like these ideas do not criticise them, do not try to discuss them, go
elsewhere, or be damned as the atrabilious incarnation of the negative thinker when real thought is
positive(. !nly favorable interpretations allowedB keep off the hermeneutical grassC( However, such
admonitions only show how far their proferers have wandered from the well-springs of philosophy.
>y individuation as a human being and as a philosopher re'uires that I fight back against the forces
of disindividuation that I encounter on my path. &he very terms of this (psychic( defence that is
employed in the place of argument only confirms the diagnostic of !!! as a pathological
formation, one that re'uires curative attention.
It will be apparent from the above analysis that I cannot agree with the widespread impression that
object-oriented ontology provides the metaphysics that is lacking to actor-network theory. !n the
contrary, I think that +atour6s -=& is totally incosistent with Harman6s !!!. :runo +atour can be
seen as a modern day Heraclitus. His system proposes a pluralistic diachronic ontology that gives
primacy to 0being-as-other1 5including both alterity and alteration< over being-as-being. 2raham
Harman is a contemporary )armenides whose synchronic metaphysics excludes time and the
objects of common sense and of the sciences as illusory, prohibiting change and plurality.
)armenides enshrined the split between the way of &ruth and the way of %alsehood. &he way of
&ruth speaks of the real as a withdrawn unchanging non-multiple blockD the way of %alsehood is our
illusory world of change and multiplicity. 2raham Harman6s !!! is a )armenidean vision where
none of our ordinary 0sensual1 concepts apply. =either time nor space 5in the sensual sense< nor
number as we know it are pertinent to the withdrawn real.
&his conflict with experience, as long as it is acknowledged openly and not passed over in silence or
obstinately denied, is not a problem for me. *e need strongly divergent theories and counter-
intuitive hypotheses in order to break thought out of its ruts, and to open our minds to new
interpretations. *e need counter-induction to make our automatic, taken-for-granted interpretations
visible, and to allow us not only to become aware of these entrenched interpretations and to criticise
them, but also to replace them with more accurate and more satisfying hypotheses and
interpretations.
&he problem arises when such a counter-intuitive interpretation is developped a priori, in total
abstraction from any testable conse'uences. - bold and fruitful instrument for the criticism of
established views turns into a dogma even more inflexible and untouchable than the interpretations
that it is trying to bring to conscious awareness and open to test and to transformation. Harman6s
bold speculative leap is immediately ossified by being removed from all scientific knowledge and
empirical test. +atour6s speculative ontology is, at least in principle, open to what he calls the
0protest1 of experience. Harman6s system allows no such protest to get beyond the veil of
withdrawal.
Speculative 8ealism is now used as an argumentative shield by Harman to great effect. ;ust as in
'uantum theory an elementary particle is never to be found in isolation but only surrounded by a
cloud of virtual particles, Harman6s !!! can never be approached on its own, but only as
surrounded by a cloud of virtual philosophies popping into and out of existence as the argument
demands. !ne cannot discuss Harman6s !!! without at the same time discussing >orton6s version
and :ryant6s and Speculative 8ealism and >eillassoux.
Is 2raham Harman6s !!! misanthropic &he 'uick answer is 0=oC1, and the justification is easily
given. !!! itself is devoid of wholesale normative judgements, having consigned such valuation to
vicarious interfacing with the sensual realm. :ut this very explanation gives us the means to reverse
that judgement. Harman6s !!! is misanthropic because humans, instances of the only concept of
humanity that we know, belong, according to this system, to the sensual 5or unreal< realm, as does
our concept of humanity. 0-nthropic1 is always sensual 5although the converse does not hold<. 8eal
objects 0withdraw1 from the human, and in several places 5cf. &H3 &HI89 &-:+3< Harman
explicitly accuses the 0humanities1 of reductionism. %or the same reason, Harman6s !!! is dark.
8eal objects withdraw, and we cannot know them, only allude to them darkly, after a dark ascesis.
Harman6s !!! is not just anti-humanist, in its de-centering of ontology away from the primacy of
the human, but misanthropic. Human beings, instances of the only concept of humanity that we
know, belong, according to this system, to the sensual 5or unreal< realm, as does our concept of
humanity. 0-nthropic1 is a sensual predicate, refering to the realm of 0utter sham1, of simulacra.
8eal objects 0withdraw1 from the human, and Harman explicitly accuses the 0humanities1 of
missing the real table and falling into reductionism. %or the same reason, Harman6s !!! is dark.
8eal objects withdraw, and we cannot know them, only allude to them darkly, after a dark ascesis.
-ny 0worth1 or value that can be granted to human beings is necessarily sensual worth, and thus
must be understood under erasure, as illusory. Harman deftly deploys familiar terms, but each
predicate invoked is to be understood in terms of the double language of !!!B the esoteric 5real<
and exoteric 5sensual< sense. In the exoteric sense, the world is an abundance of objects, always
more than our encounters with them allow us to apprehend. However, in the esoteric doctrine the
sensual abundance of our experience and the conceptual abundance of our knowledge 5whether
scientific, humanistic, or common sense< is illusion. &he (real( object is an abstract monster, it is
invisible, untouchable, unknowable.
%eyerabend vigorously combated such )armenidean ontologies as being both conceptually
incoherent and, more importantly, ethically inhumane. In /!=?73S& !% -:7=9-=/3 he
writesB
(-ccording to )armenides, human beings, or 0the many1 as he calls them somewhat
contemptuously, 0drift along, deaf as well as blind, disturbed and undecided,1 guided by 0habit
based on much experience1 59iels-,ran., 9ie %ragmente der @orsokratiker E:erlinB *eidmannsche
:uchhandlung, FGAHI, fragments :J.K, :K.A, and :J.J ff.<. &heir fears and joys, their political
actions, the affection they have for their friends and children, the attempts they make to improve
their own lives and the lives of others, and their views about the nature of such improvements are
chimeras( 5LKM<.
!ne may compare this with Harman#s affirmationB
(Human knowledge deals with simulacra or phantoms, and so does human practical action, but so
do billiard balls when they smack each other and roll across a green felt phantom. *e can develop
this theory further in an armchair, a library, a waterbed, or a casino, but waiting for empirical results
will never settle the issue, since all such results will be grasped through a prior metaphysical
decisionB an onto-theological model in which good images are the epistemological foundation of the
real( 5:3++S -=9 *HIS&+3S, FL<.
Intellectuals tend to see themselves as missioned by humanity to express and articulate its
knowledge, its needs and desires, and the principles on which they are based. &hey are thus also
missioned to humanity to guide it on the right way to truth and virtue. %eyerabend argues that such
views are not only naNve and simplistic, they are also inhumane and dangerous.
&hese views are naNve and simplistic because they are examples of the pretention of intellectuals to
speak in the name of humanity to justify the imposition of their categories and values without
consulting the opinions and desires of the vast mass who are being imposed upon. In the eyes of
intellectuals such as )armenides and )lato, and Harman, the 0many1 live in a world of illusion, cut
of from true knowledge and true value.
&hese views are also inhumane and dangerous because they ignore their own shadowB 0)hilosophy
is not a single 2ood &hing that is bound to enrich human existenceD it is a witches6 brew, containing
some rather deadly ingredients. =umerous assaults on life, liberty, and happiness have had a strong
philosophical backing.1 %urther, to impose their categories in a complex and variegated world
intellectuals need the backing of power, influential institutions, government agencies and
apparatuses, to give their directives force, to browbeat and brainwash people into submission.
%or %eyerabend, the past is no dead matter to be studied and embalmed in intellectual history, but a
living repository of values and ideas that can be drawn on at any moment to contest and even
overthrow the status 'uoB
0&here is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge1
and, we must add, of enriching our life 5cf -2-I=S& >3&H!9 pAA<.
So in order to criticise and go beyond the )latonic tradition that is still with us today, %eyerabend
turns to the 2reek world before )lato, before )armenides, and finds material for the improvement of
our knowledge and the enrichment of our life in the Homeric world.. In Homer, concepts such as
the virtues are not static universal essences but complex assemblages depending on and varying
with circumstances, best illustrated by examples rather than defined by principles, embedded in
community practices and skills rather than in the autonomous will of the rational agentB
0&he Homeric epics reflect this situation. &hey do not define, they use examples, including cases
that show, without explicitly saying so, under what circumstances a virtue turns into a vice1 5ibid,
paragraph O<.
@irtues are not simple unambiguous entities, they are not only complex and context-dependent they
also have their shadow side. Homer can show 9iomedes6 courage sometimes veering towards
madness, and !dysseus6s wisdom and intelligence merging into cunning and ruse. &he virtues6
complexity implies also their openness, we can enrich them with our imagination and our
spontaneity, we can apply them to new situations or in new ways in familiar situations. %or
%eyerabend, the Homeric epics do not define or regulate, they do not submit things to rigid rules
and universal principles, they use examples and cases, their appropriation and their projection into
other circumstances. In 9eleu.ian terms, we can say that for HomerB
0the universal does not exist, but only the singular, singularity, exists. 0Singularity1 is not the
individual, it is the case, the event, the potential 5potentiel<. or rather, the distribution of potentials
in a given matter 1 59I-+!273S II, pFJM<.
In such an open field of examples and cases, of events and potentials, of singularities and their
prolongations, the best way to learn is by immersion, we are learning moral 5and perceptual and
cognitive skills< not methods and algorithms. &he best style to convey such immersive concepts,
remarks %eyerabend, is not a systematic account aligning 0conceptual artifacts1 5which seemed to
him a particular, and often very superficial, literary form< but the Homeric 5and :iblical< style of
telling stories. S&!8I3S %8!> )-!+I=!6S &-)3S is from this point of view a fitting form for
%eyerabend6s exposition of various virtues and their exemplars.
!ne of %eyerabend6s aims from very early on was to outline a theory of knowledge that would
present the sciences and the humanities on the same plane, as 0different parts of one and the same
enterprise.1 5=-&78)HI+!S!)HI3, pAHK<. He imagined this theory as more like a manual of
rhetoric containing various illuminating examples, useful rules of thumb, and diverse observations
and remarks on the suitability of the rules to various circumstances. He wanted to avoid 0easy
syntheses1 and 0facile generalisations1. He claimed never really to have achieved that goal, but he
wrote and spoke out of that guiding intention, in order to be true to the abundance of the world.
Harman6s concept of 0withdrawal1, on the other hand, is not an innovative revisioning of familiar
phenomena, but represents an incredible simplification of the world that renders it computable
while dispensing us of the need to individuate it and individuate ourselves with it. &here can be no
withdrawal without abundance 5in %eyerabend6s sense in his /!=?73S& !% -:7=9-=/3<, but
abundance can and does exist without withdrawal. 0*ithdrawal1 is tied to a calulative or
computational understanding of :eing. &he sensual object, demoted to the status of 0utter sham1, is
de-valorised ontologically in favour of the real object that is purely intelligible. -bstractions are
given primacy over what makes a concrete difference in our lives.
9espite its promises, Harman6s !!! does not bring us closer to the richness and complexity of the
real world but in fact replaces the multiplicitous and variegated world with a set of bloodless and
lifeless abstractions P his unknowable and untouchable, 0ghostly1, objects. Harman6s exposition of
his system may begin with a preliminary gesture of recognising the multiplicity and abundance of
the world, but he rapidly reduces these concretely given multiple elements to overarching
0emergent1 unities that exclude other approaches to and understandings of the world 5cf. &H3
&HI89 &-:+3< P !!!6s objects are the 0only real1 objects.
Harman does not really begin from 0naivet41. He produces and persuasively imposes a highly
technical concept of object such that it replaces the familiar objects of the everyday world, and the
less familiar objects of science with something 0deeper1 and 0inaccessible1. He then proceeds to
e'uivocate with the familiar connotations and associations of 0object1 to give the impression that he
is a concrete thinker, when his philosophy takes us to new heights of abstractionB the real is the
unknowable, ineffable, untouchable object that withdraws. -ccording to Harman6s &H3 &HI89
&-:+3 5page FL<B
&he world is filled primarily not with electrons or human praxis, but with ghostly
objects withdrawing from all human and inhuman access.
$et Harman6s !!! has legislated that its object is the only real object. In &H3 &HI89 &-:+3
Harman calls his table, as compared to the table of everyday life and the scientist6s table, 0the only
real one1 5FM<, and 0the only real table1 5FF<. -s for the everyday table and the scientific tableB
0both are equally unreal0, both are 0utter shams1 5J<. 0*hatever we capture, whatever we sit at or
destroy is not the real table1 5FL<. -nd he accuses others of 0reductionism1C Harman constantly
conflates ontological and epistemological theses while proudly claiming the contrary. &o say that
the real object is unknowable 50the real is something that cannot be known1, FL< is an
epistemological thesis. -s is the claim that the object we know, the everyday or the scientific object,
is unreal.
Harman needs his 0sensual1 objects, despite being obliged to declare them unreal 50utter shams1<
because he has an impoverished notion of reality, and also of scientific research. &he bifurcation
operated by the notion of 0withdrawal1 is too absolute 5there are no degrees of withdrawal< and thus
splits the world a priori into two 5real"sensual< realms. Harman6s system is too globalising with its
dualisms to be able to deal with the fine-grained distinctions that come up in our experience.
!!! de-valorises the sensual 'ualities to mere secondary status . Harman6s real objects are not
sensible but only intelligible in the sense that they can only be objects of our intellection. &hey are
transcendent abstractions 5unknowable and untouchable, according to Harman<. :oth for the
Homeric understanding 5i.e. prior to )armenides6 invention of metaphysics with its bifurcation of
:eing into real and apparent< and for our post-=iet.schean world things do not withdraw, rather
they assemble and abound.