Monday, December 5, 2011

Harman on Bergson and James

Graham Harman, on Object-Oriented Ontology, writes,

"You can take the other path, of course. This is done most bluntly by Bergson in Matter and Memory and James in Essays in Radical Empiricism (I just wrote a critique of the latter book at the request of Kronos, though it will only be in Polish translation initially). Bergson's "images" and James's "experiences" are designed to circumvent the whole problem by eliding the difference between image and reality from the start. However, their arguments for this aren't very good, and succeed only if you share their distaste for the phenomenal/noumenal distinction."

I am less familiar with Bergson, but I can definitely speak for James, especially as he is taken here as the "other path" that culminates in the pragmatist tradition although Harman did not mention that. I would like to see his argument. So far, I would repeat Harman's own words used earlier in the post to defend his concept of "allure;" "I’ve not heard any objections to it that amount to anything more than personal distaste."  His description of it as a "distaste for the phenomenal/noumenal distinction" is not wholly inaccurate, but the majority of philosophers are likely to misinterpret pragmatism by thinking its a Lockean empiricism, e.g., either that we are dancing the correlationist tango, or are getting around the problem  by "eliding the difference between image and reality from the start."  Again, that is not strictly false, but without a background in pragmatism, the average reader is very likely to read that in the customary way given to us by modern philosophy.  One then misunderstands and misinterprets the tradition.  Or, to give Harman more credit, perhaps he has grasped one of James' weaknesses, as many of James' arguments "aren't very good" but not for the reasons mentioned.  They are not very good because James was more a visionary in his later work than a careful, systematic thinker.  He relied heavily on C.S. Peirce, who was everything James and Dewey were not in this regard, and many misread both of them because they do not have this background.

In closing, I do hope that the translation will come out soon, as I am curious how James was read, especially since this can be dicey at times even among the James scholars when consulting his later work.

p.s.  I could not help but be drawn in as pragmatism phenomenology and theory of representation is what I do, and James is hard to pin down definitely on these subjects, and thus I am curious how Harman does so.  James' theory of truth, that also informs his theory of experience, is a derivation of Peirce's "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" and the notion of "abduction," the logic of science.


  1. As usual, Graham playing fast and loose with something he knows little about. I laughed out loud when I read that the arguments in 'Matter and Memory' aren't very good. The hubris of that man is astounding.

    Leon / after nature

  2. ps. I also read his bit on smashing relations, or something like that. Because opting just for the opposite (reactionary individualism) is any better? I didn't know that speculative realism was about blanket "either-or" type thinking.

    And "relations" being the hegemonic force in philosophy departments? The last time that I checked Whitehead and friends were still the underdogs and OOO was on top as the fashionable flash-in-the-pan. I mean, really, what departments wear Whitehead sigla on their grey uniforms?

    So OOO are the champs and process is vilified - ok, everyone's got it, Graham. And everyone needs their favorite put-down pillow I suppose, but its just that there is no way that the processists can defend themselves against arrogant misreadings and gross mischaracterizations.

    By the time I got to the part about him reading Levi's book six or seven times (because its the greatest thing ever, supposedly) I just had to stop. Absolute nonsense I tell you. On the verge of neurotic and sick.

  3. I have more moderate feelings and views on the matter.

    I can say that I was amazed that someone would make those statements off-hand without some explanation, but then, I'm not in a position to throw stones on the matter. Most of my curiosity is in how pragmatists are viewed by those not immersed in the tradition. Why? Because the background assumed by pragmatism is quite different, and too often their words are taken out of context. Continental has the same problem when read by analytics, and vice-versa. We're just the smallest kids on the block, and thus get pushed around the most. Recall Sartwell's attacks on James that I tried to gently defend? It's hard to converse with someone who is not invested in getting your interlocutor right, but who insists on discussing it anyway.


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