crosscapslicedopenIn addition to the parade of philosophies that populate the history of philosophy, it could perhaps be said that the history of Western philosophy, since its inception, is populated by a series of transformative arguments that impact all that follows. It is, of course, true that every philosopher more or less makes arguments for his or her claims. However, it is not these sorts of run of the mill arguments that I have in mind. Rather, what I have in mind are a literal handful of argument, no doubt collectable between the covers of a slender volume, that seem to reverberate throughout the entire history of philosophy. These sorts of arguments are like remarkable points or singularities on a mathematical curve, functioning like points of density that subsequent thought must respond to. Examples of these types of arguments– and I have no intention of being exhaustive here –might be Plato’s argument for the existence of the forms in the Phaedo or his account of learning as recollection in the Meno, Parmenides arguments surrounding the being of being, Descartes argument for the certainty of the cogito, Kant’s transcendental argument, and so on. The point is not that all subsequent philosophers agree with these arguments, but rather that these arguments function like force fields akin to the bending of time and space by massive objects, calling for responses, pro or con, by subsequent philosophy. These arguments either get repeated with infinite variations, or they become sites of contest. Thus, for example, Heidegger repeats a version of Kant’s transcendental argument in Being and Time, while Husserl repeats a variation of Descartes’ argument in the founding of his phenomenology. Aristotle, in turn, is compelled to respond to Plato’s theory of learning in the Nichomachean Ethics and to overturn his argument for the forms throughout his work. In short, these singular arguments function as profound generative mechanisms. Deleuze declared that the philosopher is an inventor, a constructor, of concepts. However, perhaps the highest athleticism of philosophy is not to be found in the invention of concepts so much as in the invention of entirely new styles of argument.

Although it is still early to tell, Meillassoux’s argument against correlationism in After Finitude has the flavor of such an argument. The first thing one notes upon opening the pages of After Finitude is the clarity and preciseness of his exposition, so unusual for a Continental philosopher, and the manner in which he crafts his arguments like a jeweler carving a fine gem. Regardless of whether or not Meillassoux’s arguments ultimately attain the status of “singular arguments” in the history of philosophy, it is difficult not to delight in the ingeniousness of his arguments, their athleticism, their vigor, even if one does not ultimately agree or know where these arguments will lead. Over the next few posts I would like to outline Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism as it is, for me, the most convincing critique I’ve yet encountered. Given that there has been so much debate surrounding correlationism here and on other blogs, it would be valuable to have a more precise and readily available framework for these discussions. This first post will relate Meillassoux’s call to renew the distinction between primary and secondary qualities and outline what he means by correlationism. Following this post, I will write a subsequent post on Meillassoux’s “argument from ancestrality” or the “arche-fossil” against correlationism. Finally, the third post will discuss his rejoinder to counter-arguments against the argument from ancestrality. My intention here isn’t to take up a position with respect to Meillassoux’s analysis but to simply relate the framework of his argument in the clearest terms of which I’m capable.

Meillassoux opens the first chapter of After Finitude with an astonishing call to retrieve the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. I confess that when I first read Meillassoux’s remarkable little book it almost fell from my hands upon reading this first paragraph. What could be more retrograde, I wondered, than the retrieval of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities? With this first paragraph I felt as if I was being transported back into my Introduction to Philosophy course, entertaining the epistemologies of Descartes, Locke, and Hume, all of whom struck me as irretrievably banished following Kant’s Copernican revolution. The distinction between primary and secondary qualities can roughly be characterized as the distinction between relational properties and non-relational properties. As Meillassoux remarks, “[w]hen I burn myself on a candle, I spontaneously take the sensation of burning to be in my finger, not in the candle” (1). The sensation of being burnt is thus a secondary quality insofar as it only emerges in the relation between my finger and the candle and does not reside in the candle itself. All of those qualities that pertain to the sensible and, by extension, to secondary qualities are thus relational in nature. They are for-us, not in-themselves.

read on!

By contrast, when we speak of primary qualities were are speaking of non-relational properties that are in the thing itself. These properties are non-relational in the sense that they do not depend on us in order to exist. As such, they are characterized as the “in-itself”. For Descartes these properties consisted of length, width, movement, depth, figure, and size (7). Meillassoux, by contrast, adopts the thesis that any aspects of an object that can be formulated in mathematical terms belong to the object in-itself.

Here it is worth noting as an aside that one can deny Meillassoux’s ontological claim that primary qualities are those qualities of an object that are mathematizable, while nonetheless supporting the distinction between primary or non-relational properties and secondary or non-relational properties. If the distinction between relational and non-relational properties is of crucial philosophical importance, then this is because nothing short of thinking the absolute is at stake. In other words, to affirm the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is to affirm the possibility of having knowledge– if only limited –of objects in-themselves, independent of any relation to humans. Consequently, one’s stance towards the distinction between primary and secondary qualities provides the means of defining a very precise criteria for distinguishing between realist and anti-realist philosophies. All anti-realist philosophies share the common position of rejecting the possibility of access to non-relational properties. In other words, every anti-realist philosophy asserts that all properties are relational. However, it is important to note that the theme common to anti-realist philosophies has to do with a very distinct type of relation. Clearly rust results from a relation between oxygen and iron. The claim that rust only comes into being through an encounter between iron and oxygen atoms does not amount to an anti-realist position. Rather, a position qualifies as anti-realist when the relation between thought and being is privileged over all other relations, such that this relation is included in every other relation. In short, the anti-realist claim is that it is impossible to ever think the terms of this relation independently of one another. Being can, under this view, never be thought independent of thought and thought can never be thought independent of being. Rather the two terms are, for us, always related and hence “correlated”.

By contrast, all realist positions necessarily share the common feature of asserting a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. In order for a position to qualify as realist, that position must necessarily assert that it is possible for us to think non-relational or primary qualities that are in the things themselves and independent of our relation to that object. Realist philosophies thus do not deny that there are properties that are purely relational such as sensations and whatnot. Rather, realism merely asserts that in addition to relational properties there are also non-relational properties that are in the things themselves independent of us.

It is not difficult to see that the rejection of the primary and secondary quality distinction is common to all predominant orientations of philosophical thought in our time. That is, the central premise of the predominant philosophies of our time is the rejection of any possibility of our ability to think so-called non-relational properties. In other words, the thesis common to anti-realisms is that we can only ever think the relation between thought and being, but never thought or being independent of one another. The argument for this position is deeply compelling and is simplicity itself: Whenever I think being I am thinking being. Consequently, when I attempt to think a non-relational property of being I find myself embroiled in a contradiction insofar as I must relate to being in order to think being. It is properly this thesis that Meillassoux refers to as “correlationism” and that is entitled “critical”. A philosophy will thus be called “critical” insofar as it thinks the relation between thought and being and will be called “dogmatic” insofar as it purports to be capable of thinking the absolute or being independent of thought. If dogmatic philosophy is to be condemned then this is because it finds itself trapped in the contradiction of simultaneously claiming that it is thinking being non-relationally while simultaneously relating to being. Correlationism is thus based on two premises. First, correlationism asserts the priority of relation [between subject and object] over terms. Second, correlationism asserts the reciprocal nature of this relation. With respect to this latter thesis it is asserted that there is no being without thought and no thought without being. Thus we can only ever speak of being as being-given [to us].

With the advent of correlationism a fundamental shift takes place in the nature of philosophical debate and questioning. Where the question of pre-critical philosophy was “what is the true nature of substance?”, the question of critical or correlationist philosophy becomes “what is the most originary correlation?” Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz all give different answers to the first question within pre-critical metaphysics. Here in the blogosphere there has been a lot of confusion as to just what is at stake in the critique of correlationism, so it’s worth emphasizing that “correlationism” is not a synonym for “Kantianism”. Kant is both a correlationist and the inventor of correlationism, but Kantianism is not the only or even reigning or predominant version of correlationism today. In other words, the philosophical position of correlationism is much broader than that of Kantianism. Correlationism is the thesis that we can only ever think the relation between thought and being and that we can never think either of these terms independent of one another. Within this general thesis we have many variants or contenders for what constitutes the most originary correlation. The most originary correlation could be the relation between the subject and the object (Kant), or the correlation between language and object, or the noetic-noematic correlation (Husserl), or the relation between history and world (Historical Materialism, Hermeneutics), or between society and world (social constructivism), or between sign and world (semiotics), or between power and discourses and world, etc. All that is required for a position to count as correlationist is that that position renounce (on very strong and compelling grounds) the possibility of thinking the terms of these relations independent of one another. Just as we get a variety of divergent positions as to the true nature of substance within the framework of pre-critical metaphysics, we get a broad array of competing positions for most originary correlations within the space opened by critical philosophy.

Within the framework of realist ontology the question now becomes apparent: What would it mean to think a world without givenness. Indeed, just as Marion wrote a book entitled God Without Being, perhaps the ultimate title for a realist ontology would be Being Without Givenness. If the key question of realist ontology becomes that of how it is possible to think being without givenness, then this is because the thought of being independent of its correlation is the thought of being without being being-given to us. This question is identical to the question of whether or not it is possible to think the absolute or being independent of the correlationist relation. As such, it is a question that marks a return to unashamed metaphysics. All correlationist frames thus share the additional feature of arguing that being is only ever thinkable by us within the constraints of being given whether by language, mind, power, history, etc.