Meillassoux’s Problematique: Factial Speculation

Adam Kosko from An und fur sich has an interesting post on Zizek’s reading of Quentin Meillassoux in his new book Less Than Nothing. It’s not the critique by Zizek that I’m interested in as much as the comments by several bloggers in response to Adam’s post. There are so many differing stances regarding the work of Meillassoux one wonders just what it is he is describing in his Factial Speculative Philosophy.

I mean listen to the sentence that Adam quotes from Zizek: “The critical implication with regard to Meillassoux is that the true problem is not to think pre-subjective reality, but to think how something like a subject could have emerged within it; without this (properly Hegelian) gesture…”. One would wonder if Zizek is truly talking about Meillassoux here at all, much rather Zizek is carrying on a monologue with Zizek about his arguments with Hegel rather than with Meillassoux. In other words Zizek does not so much portray Meillassoux’s work as use it as a sounding board for his own internal debate with Hegelian thought.

Even in his Berlin Lecture (read here: pdf!) Meillassoux tries once again to clarify his position. He tells us that for years now his main thrust in philosophy has been speculations about the “capacities of thought”, the discovery of what thought can do rather than what it is. Thought as active happening, as something productive and capable. Capable of even producing something like ‘eternal truths’. His path was toward developing an absolutizing  capacity for thought, and that to do this he needed first to invent its opposite, its critique, a model of anti-absolutizing thought: the correlationist circle – correlationism or correlational facticity.

After Berkeley the materialist conceptions fell apart, the dogmatic rationalists and their theories of material reality could no longer speak the truth about the real with a straight face. Why? Because we could no longer know about reality independent of thought itself, that we only ever have access to the given not as something independent of us but as given to us in the very processes of thinking itself. This is the correlational circle of thought and thinking thought, one never has access to the independent thing, one only has access to one’s thoughts about such things not the things themselves.

In post-modern thought this came down to what they termed the “prison house of language”, meaning that thought could never escape its own linguisticity nor describe reality itself; that it was forever cut off in a irrealist world of language and thought. That the only access we ever had of the world of things was through the “modes of apprehension of our subjectivity”. So this model of anti-absolutizing thought that Meillassoux constructed as a problematique for the past two hundred years of philosophical speculation was a thought experiment in itself.

Deleuze once remarked that true “freedom lies in a power to decide, to constitute problems themselves” (Bergsonism, 14). He went on to conclude that “stating a problem is not simply uncovering, it is inventing” (ibid, 14). I think that in this sense Meillassoux is inventing a model to describe a problem that his speculative philosophy is seeking a solution too. As Deleuze states it:

“Already in mathematics and still more in metaphysics, the effort of invention consists most often in raising the problem, in creating the terms in which it will be stated. The stating and solving of the problem are here very close to being equivalent: The truly great problems are set forth only when they are solved” (ibid, 15-16).

But what is the problem for which Meillassoux’s speculative philosophy is the answer, and if not the answer then what? Meillassoux states it succinctly:

“… how can one claim to think what is when there is no thought, without seeing that this claim involves a manifest contradiction?”

As he shows us any materialism that posits the absolute existence of a reality outside all representation must show how it can do this outside the correlational circle of thought itself without becoming involved in a series of logical contradictions. Yet, those who affirm the anti-absolutizing gesture cannot sit back and rest on their laurels as if they had overcome all absolutizing thought by discovering the manifest contradictions within rationalist materialism. No. As he states it there is another absolute that is even more difficult to overcome: the non-materialist form of absolutism, whose “principle consists no longer in claiming to think the non-correlational absolute, but in making the correlational absolute itself the absolute as such”.

To this correlationist stance he poses its opposite: the speculative materialist in the tradition of Epicurus. As he states it “Epicureanism is a materialism, in so far as it claims to accede to the absolute reality of atoms and void, where the latter have no subjective-psychological, egoic, sensible or vital traits whatever” (2). Yet, beyond the speculative materialist there is another opposing stance: the affirmer of absolute thought, the solipsist. “No one,” he states, “has sincerely taken this path…”(3). But there have been variations on this theme in philosophers of sensation from Maupertius’ and Diderot’s hylozoism, Hegelian idealism, freedom in Schelling, perception in Bergson, will in Schophehauer, conflicting wills in Nietzsche, Deleuze’s larval subjects, etc. He terms these the “subjectivation of the real” or “subjectalism” a term that encompasses all idealisms and all vitalisms that offer an anti-materialist absolutism.

Because of the confusion of all these absolutisms in his early work he felt the need to reclarify just what he meant by those terms:

“I call the ‘era of Correlation” … the anti-materialist, post-Berkeleyan era that shut us up inside correlation, either through anti-speculative gesture – which alone is now called correlationism – or through a speculative gesture – which I shall now call subjectalism, rather than subjectivist metaphysics…” (4).

He emphasizes the subjectalist’s anti-materialist stance, their idealism and vitalism as opposed to the old forms of materialism in the pre-critical period. He seems to have a personal grudge against what he perceives in both Nietzsche and Deleuze as their subjectalism and vitalism, even though they both attack and critique other forms of this same disease. He spends several paragraphs tracing the trajectory of such thought finally telling us that this “strange humanism-in-denial, was simply to disseminate oneself everywhere, even into rocks and particles, and according to a whole scale of intensities” (5).

The main reason for his disparagement of this form of correlationism is its pretensions (so he thinks) to a form of ‘materialism’: a materialism that “would no longer be worthy of the name, since in it, thought would no longer exit from itself” (5). What these so to speak vitalists missed was a true speculative thesis, one that truly could stipulate in principle the speculation that one could think of that which is, independent of all thought, and all subjectivity. He emphasizes speculative as compared to metaphysical which would tie it back to the given rather than that which is outside the circle of the given. These vitalists were always already idealists who reconfigured materialism “according to idealist critieria: either prohibiting it in the name of a subjective experience that is impossible to surpass; or reinventing it as a vitalism that sees the subjective everywhere” (5).

Finally we come to the main thrust of his project, and dropping off point for my own post:

“My project – a neo-materialist project – can thus be formulated as follows: how can we escape from both correlationism and subjectalism – from all their historical variants, and even all conceivable variants? How can we carry out the conjoint recusal of skepticism, criticism, transcendental and existential phenomenology, and postmodernism, and idealism, spiritualism, and vitalism in their various forms?” (6)

That in a nutshell is the problematique of Meillssoux’s philosophy… not the solution, but the problem it sets forth.

1 thought on “Meillassoux’s Problematique: Factial Speculation

  1. Pingback: “Kenotype”: Meillasoux and the Meaningless Sign | noir realism

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