On rereading After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux: Part II

“To think ancestrality is to think a world without thought – a world without the giveness of the world.”
– 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.)

The radicalization of scientific thought in its quest to discover the “source of its own absoluteness” is the key to Quentin Meillassoux’s second essay in After Finitude. Philosophy must “take up once more the injunction to know the absolute, and break with the transcendental tradition that rules out its possibility” (50). This is not a withdrawal into either metaphysics or dogmatism, instead we must move beyond the inadequacy of  the Cartesian project just as much as we move beyond the Kantian idealism of the correlationists by seeking another “relation to the absolute” (50).

He argues that Descartes proof of God, or the ‘ontological proof’, which infers God’s existence from his perfect nature/being: since he is perfect, and since existence is a perfection, God cannot but exist (50). Meillassoux shows two ways in which a correlationist might refute this ontological argument: a ‘weak’ model, which is that of Kant, and a ‘strong’ model, which seems to be dominant today (50). The weak argument against the ontological proof comes down to the simple basis of the circularity of the correlation that “because absolute necessity is always absolute necessity for us, necessity is never absolute, but only ever for us (53).

Kant chooses another path, he maintains that it is a logical contradiction to assert the non-existence of God as much as it is to assert his existence. Harman tells us this is because for Kant the thing-in-itself is unknowable, yet he “maintains that it is thinkable” (54). Kant asserts that we can know a priori that logical contradiction is absolutely impossible. Graham Harman tells us that “this is why it is imperative for Kant that Descartes’ thesis be refuted – for if it was contradictory for God not to exist, then by Kant’s own premises, it would also be absolutely necessary … that God exist. Consequently, it would become possible to obtain positive knowledge of the thing-in-itself through the use of a logical principle alone (54-55). Ultimately Kant chooses to follow Hume in arguing that there “is no contradiction involved in conceiving of a determinate entity as existing or not existing (55).

In a subtle twist on the argument against the ontological proof Meillassoux ties in necessity and the principle of sufficient reason with a critique of ideologies against all dogmatic claims. The minimal critique of ideology is that it cannot “be identified with just any variety of deceptive representation, but is rather any form of pseudo-rationality whose aim is to establish that what exists as a matter of fact exists necessarily” (58). Against the necessity of any absolute entity (God) Meillassoux tells us “we must think an absolute necessity without thinking anything that is absolutely necessary (58). He makes a fine distinction between speculative and metaphysical thought arguing that the former “claims to be able to access some form of absolute” while the latter “claims to be able to access some form of absolute being, or access the absolute through the principle of sufficient reason” (59). The question of ancestrality is tied to what he calls the ‘deabsolutizing implication’, which “states that ‘if metaphysics is obsolete, so is the absolute’ (59). With the death and refutation of all dogmatic metaphysics founded on the principle of sufficient-reason and the absolute comes the ability to “unravel the paradox of the arche-fossil” (59).

This brings us to the second type of correlationism, the ‘strong type’, which starts with two decisions: first, the “thesis of the essential inseparability of the act of thinking from its content; and, second,  the refutation of any thing-in-itself as absolute or thinkable, therefore the banishment of it from discourse: with the concomitant proposition that only the relation between subject and object remains (63).  He brings up the fine line that separates Kant and Hegel’s transcendental and speculative idealisms respectively. Kant, he says, “maintains that we can only describe the a priori forms of knowledge, whereas Hegel insists that it is possible to deduce them” (65). For Kant these forms can never be accounted for by a “principle or system capable of endowing them with absolute necessity” (65).  Strong correlationism takes this as the starting point for its argument against the thinkability of the absolute. As he says “strong correlationism insists upon the facticity of these forms,” but insists on “extending this facticity to logical form as well…” (66).

Going into more detail on ‘facticity’ he tells us that contingency “expresses the fact that physical laws remain indifferent as to whether an event occurs or not – they allow an entity to emerge, to subsist, or to perish” (67). He continues saying,

“But facticity, by way of contrast, pertains to those structural invariants that supposedly govern the world – invariants which may differ from one variant of correlationism to another, but whose function in every case is to provide the minimal organization of representation… These structures are fixed – I never experience their variation, and in the case of logical laws, I cannot even represent to myself their modification. But although these forms are fixed, they constitute a fact, rather than an absolute, since I cannot ground their necessity – their facticity reveals itself with the realization that they can only be described, not founded” (67).

Even though structures can only be described rather than founded one must remember a key point: that ” if contingency consists in knowing that worldly things could be otherwise, facticity just consists in not knowing why the correlational structure has to be thus.” (67). He tells us that the correlationist by”insisting upon the facticity of correlational forms,” is not saying that these forms could actually change; he is merely claiming that we cannot think why it should be impossible for them to change, nor why a reality wholly other than the one that is given to us should be proscribed a priori” (67). He tells us in a key passage that what he experiences with facticity “is not an objective reality, but rather the unsurpassable limits of objectivity confronted with the fact that there is a world; a world that is describable and perceptible, and structured by determinate invariants.

It is the sheer fact of the world’s logicality, of its givenness in a representation, which evades the structures of logical and representational reason. The in-itself becomes opaque to the point where it is no longer possible to maintain that it exists, so that the term tends to disappear to the benefit of facticity alone” (68). Finally, “facticity  pushes the critique of the principle of sufficient reason to its ultimate extreme, by pointing out not only that the ontological argument is illegitimate, but also that the principle of non-contradiction itself is without reason, and that consequently it can only be the norm for what is thinkable by us, rather than for what is possible in an absolute sense” (69).

One of the strange and remarkable outcomes of facticity is that it “becomes rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality” (69). He goes on saying,

“Consequently, the most general thesis of the strong model pertains to the existence of a regime of meaning that remains incommensurable with rational meaning because it does not pertain to the facts of the world, but rather to the very fact that there is a world. Yet correlationism itself does not maintain any irrational position, whether religious or poetic; it makes no positive pronouncements whatsoever about the absolute; rather it confines itself to thinking the limits of thought, these functioning for language like a frontier only one side of which can be grasped. Thus, correlationism provides no positive ground for any specific variety of religious belief, but it undermines reason’s claim to be able to disqualify a belief on the grounds that its content is unthinkable” (69-70).

This inability of the strong correlationist to attack irrational discourse is a major point that need emphasis in regards to philosophical discourse in the twentieth century. Such strong correlationists as Wittgenstein could come to the conclusion that there “are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” (70). Yet, as Meillassoux is right to emphasize “the mystical does not consist in other-worldly knowledge it is the indication of science’s inability to think the fact that there is a world” (70). In the strong correlationists argument “the fact that there is a logical world, is precisely what cannot be encompassed by the sovereignty of logic and metaphysical reason, and this because of the facticity of the ‘there is’; a facticity which can certainly be thought … but thought solely on account of our inability to gain access to the absolute ground of what is” (71).

He tells us that the attack on the absolute by both weak and strong correlationism is “not only that of the primacy of the correlation against every form of ‘naive realism’, but also that of the facticity of the correlation against every form of ‘speculative idealism'” (71-72). Now a new question arises: does the de-absolutization of thought also imply the de-universalization of thought? He tells us that both the heirs of Kant that respond negatively to this question, as well as the postmodern partisans of a ‘radical finitude’ “who dismiss … the old metaphysics will claim that it is necessary to think the facticity of our relation to the world in terms of a situation that is itself finite, and hence modifiable by right…” (72-73). He asks another question of both parties: should the limitation of our knowing to our relation to the world extend so far as to disqualify the possibility of maintaining a universal discourse concerning the very nature of this relation? (72) He tells us the debate would henge on language and the given: the determination and status of the “conditions of possibility of language and the given” (73).

In our time a major shift “from the unkowability of the thing-in-itself to it unthinkability, indicates that thought has reached the stage where it legitimates by its own development the fact that being has become so opaque for it that thought supposes the latter to be capable of transgressing the most elementary principles of the logos” (74). What up to Kant’s time had been the Parmeidian postulate of ‘being and thinking are the same’, has become under the strong correlationists: ‘being and thinking must be thought as capable of being wholly other’” (74-75). Because of this rational disqualification of the irrational in discourse as legitimate for scientific discourse but perfectly alright for religious discourse as long as the latter “invokes no authority beside itself” we have come to a point in our time where “forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return to the religious” (76).  Emphasizing this he continues saying,

“There are certainly historical reasons for the contemporary resurgence of religiosity, which it would be naive to reduce to developments in philosophy alone; but the fact that thought, under the pressure of correlationism, has relinquished its right to criticize the irrational when the latter lays claim to the absolute, should not be underestimated when considering the extent of this phenomenon. Yet even today, this ‘return of the religious’ continues to be misunderstood on account of a powerful historical tropism, from which we must extract ourselves once and for all” (76).

This tropism of the fideist argument has “become thought’s defense of religiosity in general, rather than a specific religion”(77). He tells us that fideism “…invariably consists in a sceptical argument directed against the pretension of metaphysics, and of reason more generally, to be able to access an absolute truth capable of shoring up (or a fortiori, of denigrating) the value of faith. But it is our conviction that the contemporary end of metaphysics is nothing other than the victory of such fideism…” (77-78). The form by which fideism confronts us today is scepticism, but unlike the pre-critical philosophers who maintained an antagonistic relation to religion and revealed its irreligious proclivities, this new postmodern skepticism is an authentic fideism, one “that has shrugged off every particular obedience to a determinant belief system” (78). Strange but true he tells us that the “contemporary end of metaphysics is an end which, being sceptical, could only be a religious end of metaphysics” (78).

So instead of any ability of the philosopher to attack fanaticism in whatever religious stripe the correlational sceptic of our time has “capitulated to the man of faith” (79), which leads to such bewildering conclusions as the “impotence of merely moral critiques of contemporary obscurantism, for if nothing absolute is thinkable, there is no reason why the worst forms of violence could not claim to have been sanctioned by transcendence that is only accessible to the elect few” (79).  He tells us the modern man is the one who has, at least for the West, been de-Christianized and has instead “delivered himself body and soul to the idea that all belief systems are equally legitimate in matters of veracity” (80).

The radical closure of metaphysics in our time is seen by him as a ‘sceptico-fideist’ closure of metaphysics, “dominated by what one could call the thought of the ‘wholly-other'” (80). He tells us that the “more thought arms itself against dogmatism, the more defenseless it becomes before fanaticism” (82). It was correlationism victory over dogmatism that has lead to a “victorious critique of ideologies” that has been “transformed into a renewed argument for blind faith” and fanaticism (83).

In summation he tells us that what is required is that “we re-think what could be called ‘the prejudices of critical-sense’…” (83). Philosophy if it is to renew itself and regain its integrity against “dogmatism, it is important that we uphold the refusal of every metaphysical absolute, but against the reasoned violence of various fanaticisms, it is important that we re-discover in thought a modicum of absoluteness – enough of it, in any case, to counter the pretensions of those who would present themselves as its privileged trustees, solely by virtue of some revelation” (83).

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


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