Harman on Object Oriented Ontology

I’ll quote much of his post here, since I think this may be the clearest description to date of his position:

1. naive realists/dogmatists: the people Kant destroyed, even in Meillassoux’s view

2. weak correlationists: Kant; “we can’t know the in itself, but we can at least think it”

3. strong correlationists, a.k.a. fideists or skeptics (Heidegger is named as the typical continental version, Wittgenstein as the typical analytic one): “we can’t even think the in-itself”; we are trapped in the human-world correlate, and can only describe its conditions, not deduce them. Strong correlationists come in two kinds for Meillassoux, which I will call 3A and 3B.

3A. strong correlationists type-A: we can at least describe the universal conditions of all subjectivity, even if we can’t deduce why they must be the case (Meillassoux describes these as the present-day lions of the Kantian tradition; he gives no names, but maybe Habermas would fit)

3B. strong correlationists type-B: we can’t even describe the universal conditions of all subjectivity, because these are historically contingent and valid only for specific cultures (Meillassoux names postmodernism)

4. absolute idealists: we can deduce the necessary conditions of all subjectivity rather than merely describing them as brute givens; moreover, it is meaningless even to suggest the possibility of an in-itself that would not be accessible to thought (Hegel is a good guess, and Berkeley is mentioned twice, though the second half of the definition fits him better than the first)

So, where does Meillassoux himself fit on this spectrum? In a sensenowhere, because he’s trying to present a new option. But which one serves as the nearest launching pad for his own variant standpoint?

Oddly enough, I would think that it’s 3B. I say “oddly” because Meillassoux has little sympathy for postmodernism, never seems to have gone through a postmodernist phase in his student years, and his philosophical heroes all lie elsewhere on the spectrum. But the argument from factiality does begin with the victory of 3 (and it surely has to be 3B, not 3A) over the remaining positions (see pages 54-57 of Brassier’s English translation to review that debate).

A further question now arises: where would Object-Oriented Ontology fit on this spectrum?

Personal answer: I would place it at about 1.8. Why?

Some critics have accused OOO of 1, naive realism. But that’s clearly not the case. Position 1 on Meillassoux’s Spectrum doesn’t just entail belief in a world outside human access. It also entails a correspondence theory of truth, since it holds that the world not only exists outside of us, but that we can know it.

But the core of Object-Oriented Ontology is that we can only translateit, not know it. And translation is a feature of Kant as much as of Latour and Whitehead (Shaviro will be pleased by that remark, and possibly Cogburn as well).

When you look at the world through Meillassoux’s eyes, then OOO does have a close kinship with Kant. OOO’s obvious wild variation on Kant, however, is that the scene of action is shifted away from the human-world couple and made “any couple whatever.”

Here’s another way of looking at it. Correlationism has at least two key features (it actually has more, but let’s stick with two for now).

1. Finitude. We can’t get outside the correlate.

2. The correlate is always between human and world.

Meillassoux is most bothered by point 1, and hence expends all his energy getting rid of the finitude by progressing to the absolute status of contingency. He doesn’t mind point 2 that much at all, and even admires it.

By contrast, I am most bothered by point 2, and hence expend all my energy getting rid of the human-world couple by universalizing withdrawal into a feature of relationality per se, and no longer just a sad deficit of mournful human experience. I don’t mind point 1 that much at all, and even admire it.

Something more can be said here. Levi wrote a few times last year that my philosophy can be viewed in Zizekian “spear that smote you” terms– the spear that smote you shall also heal you. What Levi said (accurately) was that whereas Heidegger and his French heirs all took withdrawal to mark the impossibility of metaphysics, I take it positively to be the very gateway to metaphysics, as a way of getting back to reality itself by seeing mutual withdrawal even in the heart of inanimate interactions. In terms of the 2 points just mentioned I am trying to heal myself from spear-wound #2 of the two just mentioned.

This is worth relating, because (I had forgotten until today) Meillassoux makes the exact same “spear that smote you” point, but for him the wounding spear is #1: the mournful finitude that reduces us to fideists and irrational fanatics because absolute knowledge is now beyond our grasp. He heals the wound by finding absolute contingency in the heart of correlationism itself.

And furthermore, and unsurprisingly, he points to the same “spear that smote you” gesture in the amputation of the things-in-themselves by German Idealism. He simply doesn’t think that’s quite the right wound to heal.

As a pre-book teaser, let me say what I think one of the problems is with the Spectrum… I’m not convinced that the difference between strong correlationism and absolute idealism can be maintained. I don’t see the difference between describing or deducing the conditions of the correlate as being pivotal enough to create the rift between the two that Meillassoux holds to be there.

In short, I don’t think it’s true that the strong correlationist can even allow for the possibility that there “might be” a world outside us, because I see no way that such an outside world could be anything but meaningless to a correlationist.

A few people have said that my jab in Prince of Networks that “the correlationist thinks the moon is made of fingers” is just a witticism, but I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think the strong correlationist, at least, can think that the moon is made of anything but fingers.

It’s different for the weak correlationist (Kant), of course. But there the problem is different: the weak correlationist thinks that moons and fingers are married, like some twisted fairy tale from the depths of a children’s insane asylum.

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