Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Some stray notes on Meillassoux

Am pouring a lot of energy into other writing projects, and I've been neglecting the blog. But I thought I would post briefly about the reading group a few friends and I have been convening studying Meillassoux's After Finitude. First of all (although I am unsure whether everyone in the group would agree with me), I think this is an extremely good book for getting a philosophy mini-seminar off the ground. Unlike a number of other short works that one might choose for a summer philosophy reading group (say, Descartes' Meditations, Kant's Prolegomena, or some of Plato's dialogues), it is less likely that people have accidentally absorbed prejudical second-hand impressions of it. It opens up many possible further directions of study should people decide to go further, either into the tradition (Hume, Kant, Locke...), or into various problematics (the relation of philosophy to science or to religion, the formulation of laws of nature, the meaning of "know", the nature of time and chance, and so on). It largely evades easy pigeon-holing in terms of the over-arching "traditions" of the last century or so (i.e. "Analytical" and "Continental") -- important in our case, since the reading group is diverse, albeit small. It's been a good mix: some of us were completely new to the book, and some of us have read it before (even more than once). Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a work of real philosophy, repaying repeated attention. In short, I do not think the importance of After Finitude has been exaggerated during its honeymoon with the Speculative Realist movement.

A few insights (I think) which I have come away with so far (and apologies for not attributing all these insights by name to the various members of the reading group):

Like many readers, I've thought before that the whole problematic in the first chapter about Ancestrality is something of a red herring; to put it more positively, I concluded that it's the way Meillassoux thinks his way into the general critique of correlationism -- the way he initially presses home its urgency -- and I had begun to guess that it was probably the biographical source of the critique for Meillassoux himself: the way the question had, in fact, arisen for him, and so the way he chose to present it; but perhaps it was not, structurally speaking, really the most crucial aspect of the argument. During re-reading, I have begun to modify this conclusion. The question of the status of ancestral claims recurs frequently in numerous places in the book; it is clearly not just a matter of setting the stage. This obviously has much to do with Meillassoux's concern over time, as opposed to space. While Meillassoux's avowed goal is to justify the ways of scientism to men, I begin to wonder just how effectively he can think the diastema, or interval, as such. This has something to do with relativity and quantum mechanics, but because these are scientific accounts, they can assign a scientific meaning to "observer-dependence," which is not the same as the correlationist position; but exactly how it differs needs spelling out. More generally, however -- and I know I am not the first to say this -- the temporal diastema of the past which so occupies Meillassoux (the problem of events which pre-date the advent of life) is not inherently different from other "gaps" in our capacity to observe, based on scale, or happenstance, or (most obviously) space -- or even, as for Brassier, the future (post-extinction of thought). Of course one can read the argument about the temporal diastema as simply structural -- it just shows up a problem for correlationism, which then must be addressed -- but one can also see it as a symptom of something about Meillassoux's own thought -- namely, that time is deeply bound up with hyperchaos, because time = change.

Second (and this is purely anecdotal and unscientific), my experience has thus far been that, while continental philosophers (especially Heideggerians but phenomenologists generally) are often quite willing to see Meillassoux's point and tend to be interested in how to press beyond (while not necessarily granting him everything), Analytic philosophers prove far more recalcitrant. I mention this not because I want to score points here, but because it is almost exactly the opposite of what I expected. I would have presumed the Analytic camp to be far more invested in the claims and grammar of science, and phenomenologists to be far more invested in the maintenance of the correlation. I'm not yet sure that my impression is accurate, and if so, what it means. Its meaning (if any) may of course be purely "sociological," or it may be an index of a deeper logic to the positions concerned. I am very interested in others' experience and impressions about this.

A third point concerns the two principles of thinking with which Meillassoux is concerned in the middle part of the book: Sufficient Reason, and Non-contradiction. Meillassoux spells out a combinatoric which can be depicted in the form of a diagram of four philosophical possibilities (though Meillassoux himself does not sketch such a chart):

The one who is usually credited with first laying out these principles (though not, obviously, all these permutations) is not Kant, but Leibniz. While Kant is usually cast as the thinker to whom the critique of correlationism is responding, there may be a strong case for reopening the Kant-Eberhard controversy and pointing to Leibniz as the ancestor of the broader algebra whose permutations modernity has been playing out for 300-ish years. Eberhard contended that whatever was of import in the Critique of Pure Reason was already to be found in Leibniz, and that Kantianism amounted only to a special form of dogmatism; Kant, as one might expect, took some umbrage at this, and the ensuing argument forms an interesting chapter in the history of the reception of Kantianism. (See Allison's book on the subject -- pdf here (for now).) Why should we care about this? Because if the Kantian account only repeats, perhaps in a different key, notions already sounded, then the thematization of the relation between thinking and reality gets a much more venerable pedigree*. (I have argued before that it really goes back to Parmenides). Meillassoux indeed in one sense recognizes this, since he conceives of the Gallilean-Copernican revolution as a revolution, and Kantianism as reactionary.

Note that, in the chart, correlationism is the position which ultimately suspends both principles; but elsewhere (p 63), Meillassoux argues that correlationism in fact remains deeply committed to Sufficient Reason. Indeed, this is, he says, why correlationism winds up legitimating fideism, "faith as such", albeit no particular faith. This makes for a very interesting mirror-image to his account whereby philosophy invents "strange" argumentations "bordering on sophistry" (p 76).

Meillassoux's contention that the defense of Sufficient Reason ultimately amounts to a defense of fideism is of course anticipated by Chesterton, who famously quipped that when one stops believing in God, one is on the brink of believing in anything. Zizek likes to think that this means claiming God as a kind of "founding exception," an irrational omphalos from which all rationality springs; but of course Zizek also maintains that the "founding exception" is simply the ontological rupture of subjectivity. Neither of those are acceptable to Meillassoux (he will, I presume, see the one as dogmatism, the other as idealism). But for Meillassoux, correlationism has pressed SR so far that it has become an unknowable "reason", unknowable in principle. A Chestertonian faith, on the other hand, is grounded in a Thomistic and Patristic expectation of knowability, and indeed of reciprocal knowability: "Then we shall know even as we are known." (I Corinthians, 13;12). One can argue that this is nothing but a McGuffin-in-the-future, or that the ontology of contingency Meillassoux has set up can still outflank it; but one can't, I think, argue that it involves an inherent in-principle agnosticism.

* Robert Miner has argued (in Truth in the Making) that this is to be found in the teaching of Vico that the true and the made are convertible (vreum et factum convertuntur), and indeed describes his position as holding that "knowing is most adequately described in relation to making. It is not bewitched by the fear that human making is inevitably arbitrary." And this has a corollary in the way Kant established the limits of reason "to make room for faith." For this too is a more ancient task.