Harman, Meillassoux and the Spectrum of Realism

Graham Harman has a fascinating post here on what he calls Meillassoux’s spectrum, which runs “from ‘most classically realist’ to ‘least classically realist'”.

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).

I confess I’m troubled by this compartmentalisation, and even more so when Graham starts to situate himself and Meillassoux on this spectrum. He puts his own OOO around 1.8; and says that 3B is the starting point for Meillassoux’s own work. But I’d see my own position as closest to 3B, and find that to be the only plausible position for someone who takes the history of ideas seriously; not to mention geography.

Of course there are problems with any such linearity (even if called a ‘spectrum’), and one of Meillassoux’s points seems to be to try to show another axis, or a branch off this main line. This is recognised here, as are other significant problems. Then there’s the boiling down of ‘correlationism’ to two significant issues…

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

2. The correlate is always between human and world.

Harman suggests that he is most bothered by 2; Meillassoux by 1. I’m sure that’s right.

My problem with this is historical. In a sense it’s the same concerns I had with the Jane Bennett book. How can be it used to examine figures from the history of the discipline, without the criteria being used to do so being ones stacked in favour of the present. Much more serious to my mind is how some of these positions can be held without thinking that the way we encounter the world, how objects in the world relate, etc. is the same at all times and places. That’s why 3B seems the only plausible one to me – I suspect there are many varying degrees within that category. And finally, some understanding of how our knowledge of anything at a historical (or I suppose geographical) distance is mediated through texts, of various kinds, meaning that there is some mediation before we have any means of addressing them.

One way of responding to the moon and fingers example is to say that the question is not so much what the moon is, but what is it taken to be. Now that question, which would have very different answers at different times and places, seems to me one that is worth asking. What the moon was taken to be had implications in all sorts of areas, beliefs, superstitions, science, etc. So the question is not without merit if we seek to understand other modes of thought.

The relation here is similar to something Foucault said (or someone said about Foucault) concerning human nature. It’s not so much what ‘human nature’ should be defined as, but about interogating how it has been defined in different ways, and the implications – political, legal, social, religious, etc. – that this has had.

Has anything been written about how object-orientated philosophy or speculative realism might relate to, criticise, contribute to, the history of ideas?

[update 5.20pm – to a blatant error in the above representation of Graham’s position. Apologies for that. There may be other errors of course too, but I’ll let those stand]

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