Thursday, October 4, 2012

Harman’s Tables and Abundance: Tipped Toward Pluralism

Abstract: By substituting Paul Feyerabend’s rhetoric of abundance for Graham Harman’s rhetoric of withdrawal one can establish the basis for pluralist ontology organized around Realms of Being. This paper traces the steps by which I made that substitution. The crucial step involved J.J. Gibson’s account of how one can determine whether or not one is perceiving real objects: Real objects yield more information upon further scrutiny; imaginary objects do not. You can download a PDF here.

Flipping the Duck-Rabbit

When I first began reading object-oriented ontology (OOO) a year and a half ago I had no firm goals in mind. That it was both Continental in flavor and seemed well-disposed toward science was intriguing and attractive. On the one hand I had been attracted to Continental philosophy in my youth—Merleau-Ponty and Nietzsche were my guys—so it was nice to be going back home, and not in a particularly nostalgic mood. As for science, I’ve always been interested in it and was somewhat dismayed when large swaths of Continental thought went all silly about it. OOO seemed to suggest that some of those humanists were beginning to sober up.

OOO’s attitude toward science thus gave credence to its claim to radical newness. And that’s one thing I wanted to check out: was it in fact radically new?

And that, of course, is a very tricky business. How does one determine whether or not something is radically new? What’s the test? That it’s not like the old stuff? Well, if it’s completely and utterly different, then it’ll be unintelligible, no? But if it’s more or less intelligible, then how new could it possibly be?

The only way to find out was to tag along and see how things went. And that’s what I did, with nothing very specific in mind other than 1) wanting to get a handle on just what these folks meant by objects, 2) being on the lookout for an ethics or an aesthetics I could graft on to my own work on literature, and 3) investigating the possibility of using OOO as a way of arguing for more careful description in literary criticism. The first came in time, the third not at all, and the second, sort of. But only once I’d refitted OOO and began constructing a pluralist metaphysical upon it. That’s when I finally arrived at the connection between unity of being and ethical criticism, which I posted less than a month ago. By then I was deep into my pluralist refit.

This working paper reprints five posts that track that refit. Think of it as a gestalt switch.


What the object-oriented ontologist creates as a duck (or a rabbit, whichever you will) I took and fliped it around so I could treat it as a rabbit (or a duck, whichever you will). I then built on that.

For the most part I’ve worked from Harman. For whatever reason, I’ve not gotten into Bogost beyond a bunch of blog posts and the first chapter of Unit Operations. Bryant, while sometimes provocative and interesting, is too scattered to provide a reliable and usable foundation for anything. And Morton seems to follow Harman on foundations. So Harman it was. He’s disciplined and rigorous and he’s packed his basic ideas into a dense and compact little book, The Quadruple Object.

My basic move is traced in Reality 2: Heidegger/Harman and J.J. Gibson and in Unbounded Qualities of Objects, written in early and late May of this year. I announced my intention to pursue pluralism in Something Big This Way Comes, which I Published in early July. Reality 3: Five Tables, How Many Realms, was published in late July, when I’d become committed to pluralism—a commitment I commenced in From Objects to Pluralism.

You can think of Reality 1: Kuhn and Harman, as a way of setting the whole thing up. I’d read Kuhn as an undergraduate and bought his notion of paradigms and their incommensurability, as had many people. But, while many also through Kuhn had dealt a death blow to science, I didn’t think so at all—nor, for that matter, did Kuhn himself.

For what it’s worth, Kuhn also talked of the gestalt switch (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Edition, 1970, p, 150):
Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience. Like the gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all.
The switch certainly wasn’t instantaneous for me. Nor, for that matter, was it ever really a paradigm shift, for I’d never really committed myself to OOO. I was simply exploring. Seriously enough to be sure, but only exploring, trying ideas on, but not really adopting them for my own.

What happened, rather, is I realized that Harman’s ontological notion of withdrawal was very much like J.J. Gibson’s account of Descartes’ problem: How do you tell if you’re dreaming? Gibson argued that real objects always yield more information upon further inspection. Dream objects do not, they bottom out. That’s what I cover in Reality 2. In Unbounded Qualities of Objects I assert a closely related idea that I’d been entertaining for some time, that objects have unbounded qualities, which is why they yield more information when scrutinized.

From there it was but a matter of dropping Harman’s word “withdrawal” in favor of Feyerabend’s word “abundance.” Though I wasn’t then broadly familiar with Feyerabend’s work, and I’m still not, I was certainly aware of it. In particular, I knew that he’d been thinking about abundance at the end of his career. Then when I discovered Terence Blake’s Agent Swarm I found pluralism again (it poked up here and there in Latour as well, whom I’d been reading all the while) and Feyerabend. This is important, not simply because it brought Feyerabend to my attention, but because Blake, who knew something of my recent blogging, told me: read Feyerabend, he’s important, you’ll like him. So I did, and liked him. The brief post, Feyerabend and Minimalist Ontology, registers that encounter.


  1. I am glad to have been one of the catalysts in your (re)turn to pluralism. I say catalyst and not influence because one of the good aspects of your posts is that you have being doing some serious anamnesis on your intellectual development, revisiting older phases and influences (Kuhn, Gibson, and David Hays). Individuation involves creating something new with something old, which one realises is not so old as one lived it in a more singular way than one recalls. So this singularity of past thoughts is available for retrieval as one continues one's singular path.

  2. "Catalyst" is the right word for your role, Terry. I brought my own intellectual history to OOO. And one of the things that struck me about OOO is the some of the things (mostly) Harman was saying were very like ideas I had encountered and adopted before, but out of a very different history. Your history is not only independent of mine, but it is very different in kind. More like Harman's in that you're primarily a philosopher in the Continental mode. So when you gave the nod to pluralism and Feyerabend, I figured I should tip that way.

    Hays, though not at philosopher, at least not in the academic sense, was of course tremendously important. I studied cognition with him and that's turned out to be very important in this journey, something I'll say a bit more about in the introduction to another collection of posts I'm assembling. One thing I got from him was system, how to construct a system. He had a computationally based cognitive system when I first met him in the Spring of 1974. I learned it over the next year or so and then made contributions to it.

    Without that work I doubt that it would have occurred to me that one could construct a meshwork of Realms of Being. And that's certainly very important to my version of pluralist metaphysics. Without the background in cognition I got from Hays the notion of a comprehensible meshwork of Realms wouldn't have been thinkable.