Questioning Meillassoux

“…can we think the diachronic disjunction between real and ideal while obviating any recourse to a transcendental divide between thinking and being?”

– Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound

The question Ray Brassier raises comes after a superb reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude. Meillassoux in trying to give life and existence to a logos of contingency, which is to say, a reason emancipated from the principle of reason – a speculative form of the rational that would no longer be a metaphysical reason tells us that “far from seeing in criticism a threat to its consistency, the examination of the determinate conditions for absolute unreason should strive to multiply objections, the better to reinforce the binding texture of its argumentative fabric. It is by exposing the weaknesses in our own arguments that we will uncover, by way of a meticulous, step by step examination of the inadequacies in our reasoning, the idea of a non-metaphysical and non-religious discourse on the absolute” (Kindle Locations 1134-1138).1

Does materialism need a set of regulatory rules, a normativity, to help it distinguish between valid and invalid claims to knowledge or ontological factuality? I want to lay out another passage from Quentin Meillasoux’s After Finitude:

“Philosophy is the invention of strange forms of argumentation, necessarily bordering on sophistry, which remains its dark structural double. To philosophize is always to develop an idea whose elaboration and defence require a novel kind of argumentation, the model for which lies neither in positive science – not even in logic – nor in some supposedly innate faculty for proper reasoning. Thus it is essential that a philosophy produce internal mechanisms for regulating its own inferences – signposts and criticisms through which the newly constituted domain is equipped with a set of constraints that provide internal criteria for distinguishing between licit and illicit claims” (Kindle Locations 1130-1134).

My first question is: Of what do these ‘internal mechanisms’ that philosophy must produce to regulate its own inferences, whether formal or material, consist? Wilfred Sellars in arguing for the system of formal and material rules of inference explains:

“There is nothing to a conceptual apparatus that isn’t determined by its rules, and there is no such thing as choosing these rules to conform with antecedently apprehended universals and connexions, for the “apprehension of universals and connexions ” is already the use of a conceptual frame, and as such presupposes the rules in question. … [Against this dogmatic rationalism of the ‘conceptual frame’ Sellars argued] the system of formal and material rules of inference, we recognize that there are an indefinite number of possible conceptual structures (languages) or systems of formal and material rules, each one of which can be regarded as a candidate for adoption by the animal which recognizes rules, and no one of which has an intuitable hallmark of royalty. They must compete in the market place of practice for employment by language users, and be content to be adopted haltingly and schematically” (337).2

Meillassoux produces what he terms the ‘principle of factuality’ as an answer to the question I raised earlier: “the absolute is the absolute impossibility of a necessary being.” As he explains:

“We are no longer upholding a variant of the principle of sufficient reason, according to which there is a necessary reason why everything is the way it is rather than otherwise, but rather the absolute truth of a principle of unreason. There is no reason for anything to be or to remain the way it is; everything must, without reason, be able not to be and/or be able to be other than it is” (Kindle Locations 893-895).

As Ray Brassier tells us the implications of this principle are “far from trivial”:

“For it imposes significant constraints upon thought. If a necessary being is conceptually impossible then the only absolute is the real possibility of the completely arbitrary and radically unpredictable transformation of all things from one moment to the next.(67) … Meillassoux’s rationalist crtique of reason aims to rehabilitate reason’s claim to be able to access reality as it is in itself by purging rationalism of its meaphysical accoutrements. For it is reason itself that now prescribes the destitution of all rational necessity and the enthronement of absolute contingency as the only certainty(69).” 3

Yet as Brassier states it, an I agree, this ‘principle of factuality’ fails to satisfy its basic premise, which is to reconcile rationalism with materialism, and instead subordinates “extra-conceptual reality to a concept of absolute contingency” (93). Brassier clarifies this in the following statement:

“…if the only way to ensure the separation between the (contingently existing) ideality of meaning and the (ncessarily existing) reality of the referent is by making conceptuality constitutive of objectivity, then the absolutization of the non-correlational referent is won at the price of an abolutization of conceptual sense which violates the materialist requirement that being not be reducible to thought” (93).

In other words this so called ‘principle of facuality’ supports Idealism rather than materialism which was its intentional requirement. Brassier recommends that we should follow Meillassoux’s efforts to discover and implement a strategy that would deploy a distinction between the real and the ideal that would expose the whole problematique of correlationism as found within the post-Kantian philosophical tradition. Yet, it is in this very movement, or turn, that another problem arises, a speculative problem. It is the question raised in the epigraph to this essay: “[C]an we think the diachronic disjunction between real and ideal  while obviating any recourse to a transcendental divide between thinking and being?” (94).

To answer that question would be to continue a reading of the work of Ray Brassier’s excellent book, Nihil Unbound, which continues this discourse by questioning the philosophies of Alain Badiou and François Laruelle for an answer. But that will await a future post… this one only wanted to raise the question.

I’ve written on Meillassoux several times before in more detail: click here!

1. Quentin Meillassoux. After Finitude: An Easy on the Necessity of Contingency. Continuum (January 5, 2010)
2. Inference and Meaning. Wilfrid Sellars. Mind, New Series, Vol. 62, No. 247. (Jul., 1953), pp. 313-338.
3. Ray Brassier. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Palgrave Macmillan; 1st edition (December 26, 2007)

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