There are works of philosophy and theory that help clarify the thought of a particular philosopher or a particular concept without unsettling our presuppositions about the nature, key assumptions, and primary aims of philosophy. There are then works of philosophy that remind us what philosophy itself is, which call us to philosophy, and which have the effect of unsettling those assumptions that are so proximal, so basic, that they are all but invisible. Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency certainly belongs to the latter category. Regardless of whether one agrees with his conclusions (and I am not at all decided), should Meillassoux never write another book– this is his first –he will have already made a substantial contribution to the history of philosophy.

As developed by Meillassoux, the predominant orientation of thought in contemporary philosophy is that of correlationism. Written in a crisp, transparent style characterized by the highest argumentative rigor that recalls the work of Descartes or Spinoza, Meillassoux’s task is to find an opening, a path, by which we might break out of the correlationist circle.

The first decision is that of all correlationism– it is the thesis of the essential inseparability of the act of thinking from its content. All we ever engage with is what is given-to-thought, never an entity subsisting by itself.

This decision alone suffices to disqualify every absolute of the realist or materialist variety. Every materialism that would be speculativve, and hence for which absolute reality is an entity without thought, must assert both that thought is not necessary (something can be independently of thought), and that thought can think what there must be when there is no thought. The materialism that chooses to follow the speculative path is thereby constrained to believe that it is possible to think a given reality by abstracting from the fact that we are thinking it. (AF, 36)

As articulated by Meillassoux, “…’correlation[ism]’ [is] 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” (AF, 5). As a result,

[c]orrelationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object “in itself”, in isolation from its relation to the subject, but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object” (5)

Elsewhere Meillassoux expresses the position of correlationism as follows:

Correlationsim rests on an argument as simple as it is powerful, and which can be formulated in the following way: No X without givenness of X, and no theory about X without a positing of X. If you speak about something, you speak about something that is given to you, and posited by you. Consequently, the sentence ‘X is’, means: ‘X is the correlate of thinking’ in a Cartesian sense. That is: X is the correlate of an affection, or a perception or a conception, or of any given subjective act. To be is to be a correlate, a term of a correlation. (Collapse, Volume III, 409)

From within this framework, the realist,

…posits… an X supposed to be independent of any position. In other words, he posits the X as non-posited. He pretends to think what is independent and exterior to any conceptualisation, but in doing so he doesn’t say what he effectively does. He says his X is indifferent to thought, but what he does, of course, is simply to conceptualise an X perfectly dependendent on his own thinking. (Collapse, Volume III, 412)

Part of Meillassoux’s value lies in his articulation of the core argument common to a diverse variety of different contemporary philosophical orientations. The correlationist strategy consists in demonstrating that the object can only be thought as it is given, and it can only be thought as it is given for a subject. In drawing our attention to givenness for a subject, correlationism thus demonstrates that we can never know what the object is in-itself, but only what it is for-us. In short, any truth one might articulate is not a truth of the world as it would be regardless of whether or not we exist, but only a truth for-us.

The inauguration of correlationism begins, of course, with Kant (though arguably already with Protagoras) who argued that objects conform to the mind rather than the mind to objects. For Kant the transcendental subject takes the matter of intuition (sensations) and gives them form and structure by organizing them in terms of the a priori categories of the understanding and the forms of intuition. As everyone knows, Kant is compelled to make this move in order to respond to Hume’s scepticism which had shown that we cannot establish that causal relations are necessary relations if all of our knowledge arises from sensation. However, if, as Kant argues, 1) it is not mind that conforms to objects via the agency of sensations or impressions, and 2) the structures of transcendental subjective (the categories and forms of intuition) are universal and invariant for all rational subjects such as ourselves, then science can be saved for the structure of appearances will thereby be invariant. Kant is able to save necessity, and therefore the sciences, at the price of the conclusion that we only ever know objects as they appear to us and not as they are in themselves.

With the inauguration of correlationism we get a battle of the correlationists. Which relation, the correlationist asks, is the genuine correlation? Which relation is the genuine relation that governs the production of the given for the subject? Thus Kant locates the genuine correlation in the relation between transcendental subjectivity and the matter of intuition conditioned by the categories of the understanding and the pure forms of intuition imposed by mind. The phenomenologist locates the correlation in the sense-bestowing activity of transcendental subjectivity in lived experience. Wittgenstein finds the correlation in language games constituting the world. Habermas in the universals of communicative action. For Foucault the correlation is to be found in the dynamics of power and discourse. The cultural Marxist discerns the correlation in the socio-economic structures of history. The hermeneut argues that the correlative structures are to be found in historically informed linguistic consciousness. The sociologist and anthropologist locate the correlational relation in social, communicativve, and cultural categories belonging to a particular group. And so on. All of these orientations agree in the basic claim that the object is only an object for a subject and the subject is only a subject for the object, and that we never know an object as it is in-itself independent of the structures that condition appearances.

Philosophical debate thus becomes a debate as to whether there are universal correlative structures shared by all of humanity (Kant, Husserl, Habermas, etc), or whether we have a generalized relative wherein there are many incommensurate correlative structure that are irreducible to one another (late Wittgenstein, Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, perhaps Marx, etc).

Although Meillassoux does not point this out, insofar as each of these frameworks is self-referential or auto-performative (we are unable to appeal to the in-itself, but only the immanent criteria of the framework of givenness belonging to mind, the subject, society, language, or history), we are left without the means of deciding among these alternatives. At best we choose among these alternatives through a sovereign gesture that cannot itself be grounded or justified. What, for example, leads me to articulate the framework of givenness in terms of Wittgenstein or Derrida rather than phenomenology or Marx or Freud or Lacan or Gadamer or Levi-Strauss or Bourdieu? Like a fly trapped in a bottle, I shuttle back and forth between these alternatives, finding all equally plausible as ways of accounting for givenness while simultaneously finding none plausible. I make the argument that lived intentional consciousness is the ground of givenness, only to then recognize that I can only articulate this lived experience through the framework of language, only to then recognize that I only ever encounter lived experience through the framework of the social characterized by power relations and discursive relations, only to then discover that every thought and practice I engage in is conditioned by a history not of my own making. Each of these frameworks appears equally compelling and equally contingent. We are presented with critique after critique, each one calling for a hyper-self-reflexive analysis of the conditions for our relation to the object; this critique Kantian, that Husserlian, this one Heideggerian, that one Merleau-Pontyian, this one linguistic, that one Foucaulto-Bourdieauian analyzing power, practice, and discourse, this one Marxist analyzing our historical and socio-economic conditioning, that one Freudo-Lacanian analyzing the unconscious and desire.

While we can elect to take up any of these self-reflexive, hyper-critical positions and say a good deal about givenness, we are never really given a criteria as to why one ought to be preferred over the other. Or, perhaps a bit more precisely, each justification seems to be circular insofar as it seems to presuppose the very position it seeks to ground. Each claims that its ground is the fundamental ground, yet each is unable to really demonstrate that this is the ultimate ground. The Wittgensteinian claims that language is the ultimate ground, yet the Kantian or Husserlian can reply that language would not itself be possible without transcendental subjectivity or the sense-bestowing intentional activities of lived experience. The Wittgensteinian then replies that lived intentional experience is not possible without language, and the structural anthropologist snears at both, pointing out that neither are possible without invariant cultural structures shared by the savage and modern alike. And so it goes with each choosing their position according to their preference.

As Badiou has observed, accompanying all of this is a general disappearance of philosophy. Admittedly, this might be progress if, in fact, philosophy is akin to alchemy. As correlationism becomes more refined and developed, philosophy comes to be replaced by linguistics, economics, sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, cognitive science, and so on. In the language of cybernetics, each of these discourses are second-order cybernetic discourses that observe how observers observe the world while remaining agnostic about the truth-values of these first-order cybernetic discourses. From the perspective of the correlationism in the social sciences, the world of the Pentacostal fundamentalist is every bit as legitimate as that of the quantum physicist. Both are correlative structures that posit their own objects and produce their own givenness. How could we decide between either? There is thus a general “textualization” of the world, where the correlationist does not speak directly of the world– to do so would be to fall into naive realism –but where one talks about talk about the world. This, perhaps, is the reason that philosophy as practiced in philosophy departments consists in commentary over texts.

One of the central ambitions of Kant’s correlationist project, of course, was to overcome dogmatic metaphysics characterized by the belief that we can directly talk about things as they are in themselves (sans the Protagorean dictum) and, for example, demonstrate the existence of God. This is one of the central reasons that all the heirs of correlationism has proven so attractive. As Meillassoux puts it,

Correlationism is not, in my definition, an anti-realism but an anti-absolutism. Correlationism is not the modern way to reject all possible knowledge of an absolute: it is the claim that we are closed up in our representations– whether conscious, linguistic, or historical –with no sure access to an external reality independent of our specific point of view. (Collapse, Volume III, 427)

In some inspired passages from the second chapter of After Finitude, Meillassoux shows how correlationism, despite its central critical impulses, has opened the door at a conceptual level to all forms of religiousity. For where the in-itself is barred from knowledge, there is nothing to prevent one making any claim about the in-itself he might like so long as it remains at the level of faith or belief. Thus, paradoxically, correlationism, which destroyed the dogmatic path, provides the greatest and most secure refuge for religious irrationalism against the Enlightenment project. As such, Meillassoux will write, “[w]e are trying to grasp the sense of the following paradox: the more thought arms itself against dogmatism, the more defenseless it becomes before fanaticism” (AF, 48). Philosophy which is born with the rejection of mythos now finds that it must suffer the proliferation of superstition, religious fanaticism, and ideology everywhere due to its own internal constraints. The question of whether or not we can think a world without thought is thus the question of whether or not philosophy is possible.

Within the space of this post I have attempted to articulate the problem to which Meillassoux’s thought responds. I have said nothing of how he goes about responding to that problem. I am still mulling through these arguments and seeking to determine whether I find them persuasive or not. I am, however, convinced that Meillassoux has formulated the problem of contemporary thought in a compelling and truly radical way. Read this book.