An interesting post on An und für sich reminded me of this question which I’ve long wondered about the answer to. From what I know of speculative realism, Graham Harman is the thinker who appeals to me most and I have some of his papers on my reading list. But it’s a long list. I’m really intrigued by this ‘realist turn’ in philosophy, as well as the different forms it has taken and the reasons for its popularity. Not intrigued enough to actually get round to reading up on the topic though unfortunately. So while this doesn’t appeal:
For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.
Is Putnam’s critique therefore no longer relevant? The problem, it seems to me, is that in a laudable attempt to dethrone an anthropocentric epistemology from philosophy, these contemporary versions of realism are still dependent upon theories of access to and translation of the real. For example, to characterise the absolute in terms of hyper-chaos, as Meillassoux does, implies a judgement whereby chaos and order can be distinguished. It further implies that the possibility of order is a legitimate product of chaos. But if this is the case – if order and our ability make sense of things are themselves possibilities produced by the absolute – then we are in no position to judge that the absolute is ‘ultimately’ chaotic. We do not advance beyond Kantianism, in which the absolute provides the supersensible basis for our knowing of the world, whilst remaining unknowable in itself. Attempts to give an ultimate characterisation of that absolute lead to antinomy. It would be interesting to construct such a Kantian contemporary antinomy, in which the absolute could be rationally proved to be both order and chaos.
In OOO, the concept of translation has been explicitly used by Graham Harman. Objects, he claims, relate to each other indirectly, via translation: taking up the sensual images of other objects, whilst remaining inaccessible to relation in their withdrawn interior. However, if such ‘translation’ is to result in new objects (parts fitted together to make a machine, for instance), we have to ask what is it that constitutes the inaccessible interior of the new object? The answer must be: a system of differences, of translations, of mutual interpretations. So, having dethroned human epistemology from philosophy, OOO has arguably displaced questions of access, translation and interpretation into the absolute ‘itself’.
It does nonetheless lead me to wonder about its relationship to critical realism (by which I mean Archer, Lawson, Sayer, pre-dialectics Bhaskar etc). I just finished Bhaskar’s Reclaiming Reality and it’s left me newly aware of quite how radical his conjunction of the philosophy and sociology of science was, as well as how the combination of the two was critical to the formulation of realism of the sort I’m drawn to. Without these aspects of critical realism, I suspect it might have ended up being much closer to what seems* to be the Kantian dead end Meillassoux is stuck within.
*Note the italics! I’m very open to being corrected here.