by CarlD

One of the criticisms that’s been leveled at the new philosophy is that it is incoherent. I am neither qualified nor motivated to investigate whether this is true in a rigorous conceptual sense — Frames/Sing has taken some good cracks at it. But without getting into that I wanted to trouble or at least expand what we might mean by coherence. I’m going to be reinventing some wheels here, bear with me.

As Kvond says in the linked post, ideas can be coherent in the very narrow way of making sense or matching up theoretical parts without having “applicable coherence.”

There is a thin line between “incoherent” and “the supposed coherence between concepts does not do the explanatory job”. “The hand of Zeus makes it rain” is both coherent (at least I understand what the sentence means), and also incoherent as an explanation. All the explanatory connectives are missing.

Kvond does a lot of heavy lifting here by distinguishing what we might call ‘internal’ coherence from ‘external’ coherence. Internal coherence self-referentially satisfies the requirement of a wittgensteinian language game, that is, it makes sense once one knows the rules. In this way “the hand of Zeus makes it rain” would have been fully coherent to an ancient Greek as both a sentence and an explanation. External coherence looks outward to see if the game makes sense in relation to anything but its own internal logic — by predicting the coming of rains, for example, rather than accounting for them post hoc. In the same way we might ask whether there’s anything (or perhaps enough) to learn about how business and finance actually work from playing Monopoly or reading The Wealth of Nations.

The externalization of coherence has barely begun here, however. Once the standard is not just logical consistency of concepts to themselves but their correspondence to some outside benchmark (which of course has to be pulled inside somehow to serve this function, but that’s another discussion), the barn door is open and all kinds of relations become available as possible moments of coherence.

Applied or applicable coherences, those relations that are actually established between concept things and other things (alliances and assemblages, for Latour), include the ways that ideas cohere with environments, resources, modes of production and so on. We may say here that ideas are coherent with or ‘fit’ their times, and become effectual insofar as this is so. Saying that Graham Harman’s philosophy is homologous to speculative capitalism is this sort of claim.

Ideas may also be affectually coherent by assembling with feelings, providing conceptual referents for them or enabling relationships based on them. In some feminist and anti-colonialist work this is asserted as a higher quality of coherence than aridly rationalist rigor. And ideas may be aesthetically or hedonically coherent by assembling with habits, dispositions, tastes and preferences, which if we follow Bourdieu may be fields within larger political-economic assemblages. These modes of external coherence are not mutually exclusive.

So from these perspectives the orienting premise is that any idea that achieves publicity is likely to be coherent according to both some internal coherence (its language game, perhaps incipient) and to a network of external coherences. The questions then are, coherent how, with what/whom, and for what purpose(s)?

In the good old days we called this sort of questioning ‘ideology critique’, naively confident that we could find one master coherence from which to judge all the others.


10 Comments to “Coherence”

  1. I’m glad you grabbed this little snippet because I realized when I wrote it that it is was condensing a lot of thought in a rhetorical way. Indeed “Zeus makes it rain” was coherent to the Ancient Greeks, and there was a great deal of connective explanation which traveled all the way up to the “Will of Zeus” (rituals, codes of behaviour, affects organized, artistic renderings, social forms, laws, etc). The whole thing functioned.

    My problem with the “coherence” of Graham’s causation is that he asks us to do away with one interpretation of what Causation is (let us say the typical materialist model), an interpretation that has extremely strong coherence of explanation, nearly an infinite number of cross-indexed explanation, and to put in its place this other model. The reason for this is that if one is GOING to be the kind of Realist that he is, and adopt the kind of categories and concepts he has, the regular coherent model just won’t do. Much like a speculative religionist who has devoted himself to certain truths, the only logical thing one can do (if you are not going to call your own concepts into question) is reject whole cloth a lot of very well-functioning, explanatory stuff.

    And the deep problem of this substitution is that the causal theory given not only provide no explanation, not even of the order “The Will of Zeus”, for what gives one cause or another to happen, but also is remiss in even specifying its own forces beyond mysterious things like “allure” or “distant signals” from an object or other sci-fi stuff. In a sense, and this is what I meant by reference to Zeus and rain, I’m not comparing Harman’s theory to the whole of Greek Culture and practices that would bring the sentence “Zeus causes it to rain” into coherence, but to the actual sentence itself, something lacking any connective material, for instance how it might strike someone now, when reading it far removed from the culture that might have believed it.

    Now, maybe there is possible the development of a huge culture of Harmanism that in the coming centuries will arise as Harman fantasizes, something and persons which will make sense of his “initial brilliant exaggeration”, but Harman gives us no reason to even hope for such an explanatory explanation. His entire premise is IF you already are convinced by my depiction of the world, you MUST find a different explanation of the world.

    With this I entirely agree.

    But for me, there is lacking even the internal coherence within his theory, a dead silence of causal relations, the why and the how mysterious connections are made. In a way, the test of language games is the traction they give us in the world, and yes, aesthetic traction is ONE of the kinds of traction we can achieve. In the realm of philosophy, it cannot be the sole traction. When you ask, What does the mechanism do? The answer cannot be, well, it justifies the mechanism. This is what Wittgenstein called a wheel spinning in the air.

  2. Carl,

    I would say that to your larger point as well, Internal and External coherence, there is always a negotiation of inside and outside. A kind of cybernetic testing of the internal coherence of a system, and it relatably to external events, pressures, limits, stimulations, etc. One is always dealing with a combination of the two, even in the most artistic environments. Our entire ethical place in the world (and the reason why we are not ever retreating vacuum-packed objects) is based upon this dichotomy and tension between weighing “internal” error, and “external” error.

  3. Thanks Kevin, this clarifies to me what both you and I mean. I agree that those inside/outside feedbacks, ‘cybernetic testings’, are critical and seem to be what Harman is attempting to foreclose with his aesthetic turn.

  4. Carl,

    Please read “Eli”‘s Harman commentary which I posted in my last post (third quoted from the top, at length). Really beautifully expressed. I kept thinking that though you might not agree with all that it said, it was close to the kinds of written things you would enjoy.

  5. Yes, I really did, and linked it in the post under aesthetic or hedonic coherence. I also find it ironic and satisfying that some of the most appealing and effective criticisms of Harman in the current spate are based on extended metaphors.

  6. Which extended metaphors? Curious.

  7. Philosophical Ponzi scheme; speculative bubble; snake oil; landscapes / paint-by-numbers.

    Of course these can be and have been connected to more conventionally propositional content, but as metaphors they are not conventionally rebuttable. Argument by metaphor, a dangerous sword to live by, as it turns out.

  8. Hmmm. Well I take Philosophical Ponzi scheme and Speculative Bubble to be literal analogical comparisons, really to mean that there are some very definite conceptual connections between Harman’s Principle of Allure, and Venture Capitalism. I take these comparisons to be substantive, not just mud-slinging. The affective halo that surrounds them SHOULD be passed onto an urge to criticize or at least locate the values and principles that guide each. Alot of this falls to Latour, I think. The connection between philosophical Speculation and financial speculation perhaps needs to be unearthed (and I don’t regard either as inherently bad).

    As for snake-oil salesman, this too has comparison, but less so, something I tried to bring out in my “sell the sizzle not the steak” comparison with Harman’s theory and his methodology. But when Harman gives advice like “This is how to extract oil from snakes” its hard to turn the other way.

    As far as landscapes and painting by numbers, I found these less compelling images of what is wrong with Harman, though the general attitude of Bob Ross and Harman when revealing the secrets behind making things become appear realistic. There is a kind of social critique there.

    As to whether these are comparisons that can be conventionally rebutted. Harman pretty much has dismissively ignored all conventional attempts to engage his thought, or to find common ground. I do agree though, his use of metaphors, and his insistence that metaphors and style is the FIRST concern does lead to both the use of them against his work, but even more importantly, the investigation into the exactly what metaphors he uses to get his point across.

  9. I mind add, as long as I am in the mood and have a penchant for comparisons.

    What is the difference between the Harman inspired “Let objects speak!” and Sarah Palin’s “Drill baby, drill!”?

    It makes us feel good, it makes us feel like something is being done. But is Graham Harman the Sarah Palin of philosophy?

    I mean this seriously, under a number of aspects of comparison.

  10. Carl,

    I don’t have your email, but I’d like to send you an essay. You sometimes seem like you are unsure theoretically where you stand amid the likes of Levi or Harman, but you are an esteemed appreciator of Bourdieu. The essay I have in mind is a contrast between Latour and Bourdieu by Schinkel, passed onto me, and as Latour is central to both Levi and Harman, you might find it of interest. If you’d like to have it in your e-library,

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