I have never worried about the ontological status of tables. Never. I read way too much Husserl in graduate school, and if I had to say what Husserl was worried about, that would be a book. Among them, however, is the infamous coffee cup. It’s on the desk; next to me at a Vancouver café, or at Coffee Cartel in the Central West End of St. Louis where I wrote about a third of my dissertation. I am aware of myself as perceiving the coffee cup, and there is no perceiving without the object whatsoever. This is wholly relational, and one can see (just around the corner) those pesky Continentally-trained innovators of the speculative realist crowd really wanting the really-real back as if the history of Continental philosophy was a rejection of realism---so much so, in fact, that Lee Braver wrote a book about it and Meillassoux’s criticism of phenomenology is lumped with Kant’s transcendental idealism as an example of correlationism to motivate a return to the really-real (the really-real here is your thing-in-itself). In general, the really-real is made inaccessible by various stands of orthodoxy in the Continental tradition from Kant, German Idealism, and culminates into the inaccessibility of the real in phenomenology and hermeneutics (forget for a moment that Kant and German idealism should be at all categorized under one-sweeping generalization and also I should be clear that all of these SR/OOO thinkers differ on how to reclaim the really-real from its abandonment in Continental canon). The truth on its abandonment is that Nietzschean naturalism has won the day, perhaps? I digress. This post is not about the abandonment, but just drawing explicit attention to that claim means (and makes explicit) that contemporary currents are geared towards the ontological status of everyday objects and a return to some conception of metaphysics (at the very least a metaphysics of objects) is being revived.
Now, I just read Jon Cogburn’s interview with Graham Harman about the status of his work and what issues Professor Harman grapples with in releasing a second edition of his book and the ongoing status of Meillassoux’s work. There was a wonderful line in which rather than cups, Harman worries about the ontological status of tables. I would like to reproduce the whole range of application this ontological worry has for how Harman thinks through the examples of Continental canon:
Graham Harman: The question is not whether Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida personally believed in tables, but whether their philosophies believe in tables. If we ‘move on’ from this question, as you say people are now proposing, we will be back to Square One without having learned any lessons from the past decade.
Of the four names you mention, Heidegger’s philosophy probably comes the closest to ‘believing in tables’. That’s certainly how I’ve tried to read him. The tool-analysis shows us that tools have a reality deeper than their current presence to us. But there are a number of ways in which Heidegger’s brilliant analysis still falls short. (1) The analysis cannot be taxonomically restricted to ‘tools’ in the colloquial sense— hammers, screwdrivers, and so forth. It’s not clear that Heidegger himself makes this mistake, but plenty of his admirers do. (2) Heidegger reads the tool as part of a holistic system, and individual objects as merely vorhanden. In other words, Heidegger tends to conflate the withdrawn depth of things with the holistic unity of things. His ‘ontological difference’ between being and beings is twofold: on the one hand it refers to the difference between withdrawal and presence, but on the other hand it refers to the unity of Being versus the plurality of beings. This is also the flaw of ‘earth’ in Heidegger’s famous artwork essay, which confines multiplicity to the surface. (3) Heidegger’s tool-analysis is too closely related to the old praxis/theory distinction, as if holistic praxis were deeper than objectifying theory. But as I have argued frequently, praxis is no deeper than theory, and translates things into models or caricatures of those things. (4) Kant never allows us to talk about thing-thing interactions apart from any human mediation, and neither does Heidegger. This is something one can only get from Whitehead and sometimes from Latour: the equality of all interactions, whether humans are there or not. Already, then, it is impossible to say that Heidegger’s philosophy ‘believes in tables’ in any straightforward sense.
What about Merleau-Ponty? Not at all. Here is a thinker who offers a number of wonderful concrete insights, but whose philosophical originality is consistently exaggerated. Merleau-Ponty is credited with a major innovation for saying that the world looks at us just as we look at it. But this does not avoid correlationism, since human and world are still the two things looking at each other. What about parts of the world looking at each other? No mention of this from Merleau-Ponty that I can recall, but this is the sine qua non for any post-correlationist continental philosophy.
Derrida is the most impossible case of the four, since almost no other thinker (except Berkeley) more decisively excludes a thing-in-itself. It’s true that certain people (John Caputo comes to mind) occasionally make the argument that Derrida was a ‘realist’. Yet they do this only by twisting the word ‘realism’ around until it conveniently meets their specifications. Notice that they never aim their guns at past interpreters of Derrida for being anti-realists, which is precisely what would be happening if Derrida could be read as a bona fide realist. Caputo and his allies simply want to defang the word ‘realism’ by claiming that they are already beyond it. But this was the major problem with continental philosophy all along: a refusal to take the realism question seriously. Many interesting things happen once you do take it seriously.
Every example is concerned about how to re-integrate the ontological worry of objects back into philosophy. “Many interesting things happen once you do take it seriously.” While this might not be a worry, the return to the really-real is, at the same time, a belief in the power of metaphysics to discern the nature of objects and at the outset to do this very plainly and clearly under a commitment of materialism. In the above interview, Harman calls interactions these materialist commitments the thing-thing relations without mediation.
However, we can note the pragmatic limit of metaphysics itself by revisiting, albeit briefly, the pragmatic critique of metaphysics itself set forward by William James. James regarded metaphysics up until his time as promulgated theoretical disputes that offer no solution to the problems they raise. We have two thousand five hundred years of various metaphysical solutions. This long passage is, perhaps, the most important in the entire The Will to Believe, as it emboldens the reasons why the question of God’s existence can be so decided against Clifford’s evidentialism, but also more importantly why James’s stance is defensible on higher grounds (and why this critique applies to Harman so well).
To claim that certain truths now possess [objective evidence], is simply to say that when you think them true and they are true, then their evidence is objective, otherwise it is not. But practically one’s conviction that the evidence one goes by is of the real objective brand, is only one more subjective opinion added to the lot. For what a contradictory array of opinions have objective evidence and absolute certitude been claimed! The world is rational through and through,--its existence is an ultimate brute fact; there is a personal God,--a personal God is inconceivable; there is an extra-mental physical world immediately known,--the – the mind can only know its own ideas; a moral imperative exists,--obligation is only the resultant of desires; a permanent spiritual principle is in every one, -- there are only shifting states of mind; there is an endless chain of causes,--there is an absolute first cause; an eternal necessity,-- a freedom; a purpose, -- no purpose; a primal One, -- a primal Many; a universal continuity, -- an essential discontinuity in things; an infinity, -- no infinity. There is this, -- there is that; there is indeed nothing which someone has not thought absolutely true, while his neighbor deemed it absolutely false; and not an absolutist among them seems ever to have considered that the trouble may all the time be essential, and that the intellect, even with truth directly in its grasp, may have no infallible signal for knowing whether it be truth or no. When indeed one remembers the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors or the Holy Office of Inquisition [or any time in which intolerance of some metaphysical views have prevented the ethical treatment of persons], one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.
Now, if James is right (and everyone here knows I am committed to that), then in what sense is metaphysics possible if it recognizes the pragmatic critique itself? A theory of experience, the practical center of the subject in James or Scheler’s person, are required to fill out what is left possible to us? However, in that theory of the subject/person and the range and capacities must explain the pluralistic range of metaphysics, not delimiting one answer and absolutizing it to all experience. For James and myself, the theory of experience and the subject constrains the dangerous tendency, and a tendency that Harman regards about his own work in Cogburn’s interview. In effect, we must keep in mind that there can be no real metaphysics in the sense, say, that one might learn from a seminary about Thomism. Thomism is useful to explain much of the Catechism and our commitments as Catholics about the Eucharist Mass, but in the end its ability to appeal to objective certitude is, as James says, just one of the many contradictory opinions entertained by human beings. For example, what explains the miracle of the Eucharist better: Aristotelian-Thomistic substance ontology or Sokolowski’s phenomenologically-based theology of disclosure? Is there some fact of the matter in this debate just as much as there is that any SR/OOO thinker is locked in with forms of anti-realism? Even more, to think that philosophy qua metaphysics can deliver some final answer in either the metaphysics involved in one sacred tradition or the realist/anti-realist questions is itself just one more “opinion added to the lot.” At that point, only a metaphysics of experience is possible, which elicits why pragmatism and phenomenology are the only essential leftover methodologies to pursue questions of metaphysics, even about the thing-thing relations that allow tables to be talked about adequately.
What we will find, I think, is Harman’s interests in Heidegger, Kant, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida’s neglect is the pragmatic upshot about the belief we can have knowledge of thing-thing relations. In the words of one friend, if we take mediation, which means taking phenomenology seriously (and any strong correlationism seriously), then we cannot take seriously sciences like geology or astronomy. As I think the argument goes, these are examples of hard sciences that require apprehending thing-thing relations about events that occur where no human mediation occurs, except with respect to human understanding in the present. Of course, Harman does not think he is biting some pragmatic upshot, but doing metaphysics as offering a philosophical explanation; all SR/OOO thinkers do. Here’s where I think James’s neutral monism comes in handy. It can explain why Harman (and any SR/OOO thinker) adopts a pragmatic stance towards objects, can fulfill what he ultimately desires, and keep in check the hubris of any metaphysical program to posit realities they think truly independent of experience (or is it better to think that these delimitations are deflations of the correlationist critique? I’ll leave that open).
Neutral monism is the thesis that our experience is itself not divided. There is one type of primal stuff, but which nothing more can be said. Pragmatically, we are free to assign priority to describing stuff in relation to the intentional act side or to describe stuff as if they are independent of intentional acts in the form of objects. In this way, James in his remarkable “Does Consciousness Exist” can describe events of objects in science as if we were never present in their cognition, and in fact, Harman’s work is valuable in bringing up the pragmatic neglect of the Continental tradition on this point. Could a Husserlian transcendental idealist take seriously scientific facts that in their explanation have no source in being constituted by a transcendental subject? Husserl would remind us that knowledge, even scientific knowledge is a subjective accomplishment first and foremost and that the meaning of the world is a product of the intentional constitution of the transcendental subject. However, this is a metaphysical interpretation of our experience – just like Harman’s commitments – and elicits an opposition that Husserl sought to overcome in the first place. Instead, perhaps, we should rework both phenomenology and the very conception of metaphysical programs into honoring how experience actually works rather than introducing unnecessarily distinctions and concepts that go nowhere. Pragmatically, we might find that we should be realists, and I think that James would agree. That realism, however, would be consistent with an openness of the possibilities of experience grounded in our embodied situation and such a realism would favor the many aspects of lived-experience that are non-reductive and should be integrated back into our efforts to understand the world.
 There exists a systematic neglect of the early phenomenological realism of the Munich Circle, which also included Scheler. There were phenomenologists who thought that phenomenological description disclosed essences that were extra mente, what we might call mind-independence now or what I call a phenomenology qua non-natural realism. However, much of the reception and popularity phenomenology reached occurred with the French reception of Husserl and Heidegger through thinkers like Derrida.
 William James, “The Will to Believe” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications, 1956): 1-31. James, WtB, 16-17 cited here. Bracket’s mine.
 While I haven’t answered Terrence Blake’s concerns yet, this is an indirect answer to why postmodernism’s criticism of the subject cannot entirely be entertained. Philosophy must explain how it is that the range of experiences we have integrate into the organic whole of experience.