On re-reading Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: Part I

“Empirical science is today capable of producing statements about events anterior to the advent of life as well as consciousness.”
– Quentin Meillassoux

(Note: this series of essays was written back in 2009-2010… and, do not reflect changes in science or philosophy since that time.)

On re-reading Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, the first thing I’m struck by is the lucidity and clarity of his mind: it flows from one argument to the next, taking in the panorama of the dark alien landscape of the great outdoors of thought and being, which is not so much in need of a new mathematical vocabulary of the real – as it is yearning for a mind free of its own self-invested plenitude, hoping against hope that it will step outside itself and its own correlational prison and gaze upon that which is: the in-itself, divested of all human contact and experience, yet  brightened by that inexplicable figuration of pure astonishment. Like an agonist in some ultimate glass-bead game of truth he weaves the myriad threads of philosophical discourse, unravelling the knotted aporia at the center of our black modernity, marshaling from one text to the next thoughts that will explicate a speculative solution to our current philosophical quagmire. Yet, unlike Magister Knecht in Herman Hesse’s classic novel, Magister Ludi, Meillassoux is not just some forlorn aesthete of the final thought, instead he is confronting nothing less than the truth of what is, then asking the oldest of questions: What can I know? What shall I do? What can I hope? .. and, perhaps, What is to be done?

Out of this amalgam comes a formidable and yet brilliant set of new problems, issues and concerns relating to our views of self, society, and the universe. He begins stipulating that the difference between objective and subjective representation is shaped by two types of subjective representation: those that can be universalized, and are thus by right capable of being experienced by everyone, and hence ‘scientific’, and those that cannot be universalized, and hence cannot belong to scientific discourse. [1: 12-13] Then he makes an interesting point:

“From this point on, intersubjectivity, the consensus of a community, supplants the adequation between the representations of a solitary subject and the thing itself as the veritable criterion of objectivity, and of scientific objectivity more particularly. Scientific truth is no longer what conforms to an in itself supposedly indifferent to the way in which it is given to the subject, but rather what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community” (ibid. p. 13).

That the “consensus of a community” now controls the power of “scientific truth” through intersubjectivity rather than adequation of the given is the basis of his philosophical program. The solitary individual with his self-world correlation is no longer the viable model upon which a philosophical and scientific truth can be founded. Only through  intersubjective testibility of a consensual scientific community can truth of the given be represented objectively. Herbert Feigl outlined this as follows:

“The quest for scientific knowledge is regulated by certain standards or criteria … the most important of these regulative ideals [is] intersubjective testability… What is here involved is … the requirement that the knowledge claims of science be in principle capable of test on the part of any person properly equipped with intelligence and the technical devices of observation and experimentation.”

All this comes down to is that in science, when you publish an article it’s subjected to peer review. So the community of scientists can then verify the validity of the scientific arguments being presented. This might all be well and good for scientific truth but what of others kinds of truth beyond science? Let us see what he is up to in divulging the difference between how an object is given to a solitary self, and how it is given to a community of scientists:

“Such considerations reveal the extent to which the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of correlation. By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant of correlationism’ (p. 13).

So we don’t have access to either thinking or being in themselves, but only to their correlation, which has cut us off within the circle of the self-world relation and the gap that exists between them which cannot be breached. He tells us that before Kant rival philosophers discussed the substance of the world, and after him they discussed the correlation between self and world, subjectivity and objectivity in all its ramifications. In our century this took on two differing approaches or two ‘media’,  language and consciousness, the former taken up by analytical philosophers, the latter by phenomenologists (p. 15). We are cut off from the outside world, locked up in the ‘transparent cage’ of language and consciousness, consequently these two media “enclose the world within themselves only insofar as, conversely, they are entirely contained by it (p. 16).

We live under the sign of mourning and bereavement, for contemporary philosophers have “lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: the outside which is not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – being entirely elsewhere” (p. 17). He emphasizes that the correlation between thought and being cannot be reduced to that of the subject and object, that the dominance of critiques of representation in our time “signal a break with correlation,” nor a return to dogmatic metaphysics (p. 17). But what to do? Shall we deliberately regress back to dogmatism? Or, better yet, he asks, “what is it that incites us to break with the circle of correlation? (p. 19).

That science can now date the universe, the earth, and the formation of the first fossil creatures that lived before the emergence of our hominid ancestors, and leaves us wonder how we are to “grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior… to every form of human relation to the world?” (p. 21). The crux of this for him is how science is “able to think such statements, and in what sense can we eventually ascribe truth to them?” (p. 21). He defines two terms to qualify his argument: first, the ‘ancestral’, by which he means “any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species – or even anterior to every recognized form of life on earth; and, second, ‘arche-fossil’ or ‘fossil-matter’, by which he means “not just materials indicating the traces of past life, according to the familiar sense of the term ‘fossil’, but materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality or event; one that is anterior to terrestrial life” ( p. 22).

So this recognition of time and event, the trace of all anteriority before the emergence of earth and life as we know it in relation to our thinking and being is at the heart of this speculative formulation. He is not interested in the underlying technical aspects of how science apprehends this anteriority, but rather he is interested in “understanding under what conditions these statements are meaningful. … how is correlationism liable to interpret these ancestral statements?” (p. 22). He introduces the distinction between two types of correlationism: the transcendental and the speculative. Against dogmatic metaphysics the correlationist avoids hypostatizing a ‘big Other’, an ‘ancestral witness’, an “attentive God, who turns every event into a phenomenon…” instead the correlationist “invokes the correlation to curb every hypostatization, every substantialization of an object in and of itself” (p. 23). Since we are all bound within the horizon of the correlational field of self-world, without recourse to such scholastic metaphysics of a secret witness god of the Event then “how is one to interpret an ancestral statement?” (p. 23).

He makes a fine distinction between a Cartesian and Pythagorean physics, disavowing the latter’s conceptual framework wherin mathematical numbers and equations exist in themselves merged with being; and, instead, following a Cartesian perspective in which”ancestral statements are statements whose referents can be posited as real (albeit in the past) once they are taken to have been validated by empirical science at a given stage of its development”( p. 25). Ultimately scientific truth is based upon scientific objectivity, which is “no longer defined with reference to the object in its self  (in terms of the statement’s adequation or resemblance to what it designates), but rather with reference to the possible universality of an objective statement” (p. 30). He goes on to say it  “… is the intersubjectivity of the ancestral statement – the fact that it should by right be verifiable by any member of the scientific community – that guarantees its objectivity, and hence its ‘truth’. It cannot be anything else, since its referent, taken literally, is unthinkable” (p. 30). Instead of starting from the past the correlationist starts from the present and carries out a “retrojection of the past on the basis of the present“(p. 31). Logical retrojection rather than chronological description is the basis of this correlational “counter-sense” which alone is capable of producing the meaning of the ancestral statements through retrojection of a “seemingly ancestral past” (p. 31).

The quandary of this correlationist stance as science is that it leads to a statement that is verifiable and true, but “what it describes as real is an impossible event; it is an ‘objective’ statement, but it has no conceivable object” (p. 32). Ultimately the correlationist “should stop being modest and dare to assert openly that he is in a position to provide the scientist with an a priori demonstration that the latter’s ancestral statements are illusory: for the correlationist knows that what they describe can never have taken place the way it is described” (p. 33).

Contemporary correlationists are now exposed to an extreme idealism, one “that is incapable of admitting that what science tells us about these occurrences of matter independent of humanity effectively occurred as described by science” (p. 34). This leads to the problem of temporality in ancestral statements:  “To think science is to think the status of a becoming which cannot be correlational because the correlate is in it, rather than it being in the correlate. So the challenge is therefore the following: to understand how science can think a world wherein spatio-temporal givenness itself came into being within a time and a space which preceded every variety of givenness” (p. 41).

His philosophical investigation sets out not to resolve the problem of time and ancestrality but to emphasize its problematique by asking, “what are the conditions under which an ancestral statement remains meaningful?” (p. 46). This question spawns a more central and ‘originary’ one: “how are we to conceive of the empirical sciences’ capacity to yield knowledge of the ancestral realm?” (p. 46). He goes on to say,

“For what is at stake here, under the cover of ancestrality, is the nature of scientific discourse, and more particularly of what characterizes this discourse, i.e. its mathematical form. Thus our question becomes: how is mathematical discourse able to describe a world where humanity is absent; a world crammed with things and events that are not the correlates of any manifestation; a world that is not the correlate of a relation to the world? This is the enigma which we must confront: mathematics’ ability to discourse about the great outdoors; to discourse about a past where both humanity and life are absent” (p. 47).

When it comes down to it “we must understand that what distinguishes the philosopher from the non-philosopher in this matter is that only the former is capable of being astonished (in the strong sense) by the straightforwardly literal meaning of the ancestral statement. The virtue of transcendentalism does not lie in rendering realism illusory, but in rendering it astonishing, i.e. apparently unthinkable, yet true, and hence eminently problematic. … The arche-fossil enjoins us to track thought by inviting us to discover the ‘hidden passage’ trodden by the latter in order to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossibility itself: to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not” (p. 48).

1. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (2008)

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