In my last post I outlined Meillassoux’s call to retrieve the distinction between primary and secondary properties. Primary qualities, it will be recalled, are non-relational properties that are in the object itself, whereas secondary properties are properties that only exist relationally between subject and object, and, while perhaps caused by objects, nonetheless exist only in subjects. In calling for a retrieval of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities Meillassoux’s aim is to think the absolute or reality as it exists independent of human beings. In that post I argued that every variant of realism maintains some fidelity to this distinction between primary and secondary qualities and that if Meillassoux is correct the key question of realist ontology becomes that of how it is possible to think being without givenness.
Correlationism, by contrast, was seen to be the thesis that it is impossible to think being independent of the relation between thought and being. For the correlationist, thought always is in relation to being and being always is in its relation to thought. As such, it is both impossible and incoherent to think either of these terms independent or apart from one another. Consequently, for the correlationist, the concept of primary qualities is contradictory because it is the concept of properties independent of their correlation to thought. Where for pre-critical, realist philosophers the question was “what is the true nature of substance?”, for critical philosophers the question becomes “what is the most originary correlation?” Is it the relation between subject and object? The relation between language and world? The relation between history and world? The relation between noesis and noema? The relation between power and discourses and world? Or something else besides? Correlationism, in short, is not identical to Kantianism. Kantianism is only one variant of correlationism (held probably, by almost no one today), but nonetheless holds a privileged place in having first explicitly formulated the correlationist argument.
In addition to sharing the common thesis that we can never think the terms of the correlation between thought and being independent of one another, correlationists are also united in rejecting the concept of truth as adequation. If truth can no longer be thought as adequation between an ideal entity like a proposition and an independent referent, then this is because the concept of an independent referent is, according to the correlationist, an incoherent concept. The correlationist has extremely strong and compelling arguments for this thesis. However, in rejecting the notion of truth as adequation, the correlationist does not reject the notion of truth as such. Rather, truth now becomes thematized as universality or intersubjective consensus. For example, in Kantianism, because the correlational structure is the same for all subject, all subjects necessarily arrive at the same conclusion in experimental settings (this is intended only as a very crude summary of Kant’s thesis, please have mercy on me!). Consequently, while we cannot know whether or not our scientific understanding of the world reflects the world as it is in-itself independent of us, we are nonetheless able to establish the universality of phenomena for all subjects structured in terms of our particular correlational structure. Likewise, under one reading of Levi-Strauss, Levi-Strauss, in his ethnographic work, is able to discern identical structures of thought at work in diverse cultures that have no contact with one another because there is a deep structure of mind organized in a particular way that replicates itself in a variety of ways in entirely different cultures, i.e., there is a universality underlying the particular.
In this post my aim is to outline Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism which is, I believe, based on an ingenious and delightfully devious argument. As I proceed, I ask readers sympathetic to the correlationist orientations of thought to be patient and suspend criticisms of Meillassoux’s argument until my next post. As I outline Meillassoux’s argument a number of obvious correlationist rejoinders or counter-arguments will emerge or occur to the reader. My aim in this post is just to get a clear fix on Meillassoux’s argument. Meillassoux is cognizant of the likely rejoinders to his argument (arguments that have appeared often on this blog during the “Kant wars” between Mikhail, Alexei and me) and addresses them after formulating his argument from ancestrality. My next post will be devoted to the examination of these counter-arguments and how Meillassoux addresses them. By forestalling criticisms of Meillassoux’s argument from ancestrality until the next post, defenders of correlationism will have a better fix on what Meillassoux does and does not understand about correlationism and needless repetition will be avoided.
Meillassoux begins his critique of correlationism by citing a number of dates pertaining to natural history. Our universe is 13.5 billion years old. Our earth accreted 4.56 billion years ago. Life originated on earth 3.5 billion years ago. Humanity (homo habilis) originated 2 million years ago. I confess that when I think of numbers like this, I grow sick to my stomach, experiencing something like Pascal’s dread in the face of the infinite. When I consider that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is, as far as we can tell, 90,000 light years across (and let us not forget that light travels at about 186,000 miles per second) or that it takes 200 million years for our solar system to travel once around the universe, I find that I simply cannot begin to comprehend these numbers. I can think them, somehow, but I can’t imbue them with meaning. Oddly I experience a sense of claustrophobia (agoraphobia?), feeling trapped on this small planet, suddenly recognizing that the light I’m seeing through Hubble is not something simultaneously to me, but rather something that took years to reach us. Genuine limits to information. No doubt scales like this are what Kant had in mind in his gorgeous discussion of the mathematical sublime in the Critique of Judgment.
In citing these dates, Meillassoux observes that contemporary science– through techniques derived from the constant rate of disintegration of radioactive nuclei, as well as upon the laws of thermoluminescence permitting the application of dating techniques to light emitted from stars –is now capable of making statements about events anterior to the advent of life as well as consciousness (9). What is it, Meillassoux wonders, that scientists are talking about when they discuss such dates?
At this point Meillassoux introduces some terminology. Meillassoux defines as “ancestral” any event that is anterior to the emergence of the human species or life on the planet earth. Closely related to ancestral statements, Meillassoux refers to “arche-fossils” and “fossil-matter” as not simply materials indicating the traces of past life in the sense of our familiar understanding of “fossil”, but also as materials indicating the existence of ancestral realities or events anterior to all life (10). An arche-fossil is thus not an ancestral being like the big bang “in the flesh”, but is rather something like the radioactive decay of isotopes that allows us to infer the ancestral or that which precedes all life. Meillassoux’s question is thus two-fold: On the one hand, he asks, under what conditions are these statements meaningful? That is, what must be the case for ancestral statements to have any sense? On the other hand, and more fundamentally, how must the correlationist interpret these statements?
Meillassoux observes that correlationism aims to halt any hypostatization or substantialization of objects that would treat them as existing in and of themselves (11). It is important to have a precise understanding of Meillassoux’s point here. Meillassoux is not claiming that correlationists are Berkeleyan idealists claiming that mind creates objects (esse est percipi). In claiming that the correlationist seeks to curb hypostatization of the object of knowledge, all Meillassoux is pointing out is that for the correlationist the idea that we can have knowledge of non-relational properties (primary properties) that belong to the object in itself is incoherent. Once again, we are unable to know objects independent of the thought-being correlation. Consequently, for the correlationist we can only ever know the object as it is for-us, as it is related to us, never as it is in-itself. Since any statement about an object already includes thought, we can only ever know objects as they are manifested or given to us, never as they are in-themselves.
Although this move might strike some as a form of skepticism (and indeed some forms of correlationism are, as in the case of Foucault and the human sciences), correlationism can just as much be read as a defense against skepticism in the case of philosophers like Kant or Husserl. For Kant, at least, the motive for this move was to save science from Hume’s skepticism. In his critique of induction and causality, Hume had convincingly demonstrated that knowledge of the necessity of cause and effect relations (necessity here understood as the idea that we would involve ourselves in a logical contradiction were we to think that a cause could occur without producing a particular effect) cannot be grounded in sensation because 1) sensation does not reveal, disclose, or give necessary relations between sense-impressions but only one sensation following another, and 2) because nothing in our sensations demonstrates that the future must be ordered in the same way as the past. Accepting Hume’s argument about the insufficiency of sensation as a ground for establishing causal necessity, while nonetheless being convinced that Newton had demonstrated something fundamental, necessary, and universal about the nature of motion, Kant instead located the origin of necessity in a priori structures of the mind, rather than derived from sensations in experience. In this way he was able to ground the universality and necessity of these scientific laws.
Two qualifications are important at this point if we are to properly understand the correlationist position. First, when the correlationist claims that being cannot be thought independent of its correlation to thought, he is not claiming that this correlation is subjective or relative to individual minds. In the case of Kant and Husserl, at least, the correlation that interests the correlationist is not the correlation between an idiosyncratic individual and the object, but between the subject of science and being. That is, the question– for Kant and Husserl –is that of what kind of subject is required for science to be possible? The a priori structures of this subject must be universal and necessary, not restricted to individual psychology. Only in this way can the universality and necessity (in the logical sense) of scientific laws be establish. Second, when the correlationist refers to manifestation or givenness, the necessity of being being-given is not to be understood as a sort of vulgar logical positivism where we must be present to an object to have knowledge of that object. For example, the vulgar logical positive might say that because I am not currently experiencing the bottom of the ocean I cannot know that it is governed by certain laws of physics. For the correlationist it is sufficient to argue from the counter-factual that were I to go to the bottom of the ocean it would be given or manifested in this way by virtue of the universal structures governing thought-being relations.
At this point we can discern the contours of Meillassoux’s strategy of argument. Meillassoux’s argument from ancestrality will proceed by attempting to show that ancestral statements are philosophically inadmissable so long as they are interpreted literally (13). What is a literal interpretation of an ancestral statement? A literal interpretation of an ancestral statement is a realist interpretation. That is, one interpretation of an ancestral statement is literal when it is taken to assert that the properties attributed to an object, event, or state predating the emergence of life, and, in particular, humans belong to these objects, events, or states despite the absence of any thought-being correlation. It is at precisely this point that I ask the advocate of correlationism to hold off on their rejoinders as, no doubt, a whole host of counter-arguments have occurred to them.
For the correlationist, according to Meillassoux, ancestral statements when taken literally must be false as they purport to make claims about being independent of correlation to thought. Meillassoux is quick to point out that the correlationist will add that in no way does their position conflict with the actual practice of science.
Doubtless, where science is concerned, philosophers have become modest– and even prudent. Thus, a philosopher will generally begin with an assurance to the effect that his theories in no way interfere with the work of the scientist, and that the manner in which the latter understands her own research is perfectly legitimate. But he will immediately add (or say to himself): legitimate, as far as it goes. What he means is that although it is normal, and even natural, for the scientist to adopt a spontaneously realist attitude, which she shares with the ‘ordinary man’, the philosopher possesses a specific type of knowledge which imposes a correction [my emphasis] upon science’s ancestral statements– a correction which seems to be minimal, but which suffices to introduce us to another dimension of thought in its relation to being. (13)
This “correction”, of course, will consist in the addition of thought to these statements about being as a necessary correlationist relation. In other words, the correlationist will claim that ancestral statements appear ancestral for us based on the correlationist relation between thought and being governing givenness or manifestation. Thus, the correlationist must argue that ancestral statements are retrogressions based on the present. That is, based on the correlative structure that governs the relation between thought and being in our present (where humans do exist), we retrodict this structure into a past preceding the existence of humans. In short, the ancestral statement is given a counter-factual interpretation like the one given about the bottom of the ocean above. Were humans to have existed during these events, the rejoinder goes, they would have been given in this way.
For the correlationist, according to Meillassoux, the realist interpretation of ancestral statements cannot but lead to a “tissue of absurdities” (14).
First, it entails that being is not co-extensive with manifestation, since events have occurred in the past which were not manifest to anyone;
Second, it entails that what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is;
Third, it entails that manifestation itself emerged in time and space, and that consequently manifestation is not the givenness of a world, but rather an intra-worldly occurrence;
Fourth, it entails that this event can, moreover be dated;
Fifth, it entails that thought is in a position to think manifestation’s emergence in being, as well as a being or a time anterior to manifestation;
And finally sixth, it entails that the fossil-matter is the givenness in the present of a being that is anterior to givenness; that is to say, that an arche-fossil manifests an entity’s anteriority vis a vis manifestation. (ibid.)
All of these consequences are effectively foreclosed as coherent possibilities by any and all correlationism, since, in one way or another, they all purport to be capable of talking about a being without givenness or a being without correlation.
Meillassoux poses a very simple binary question to the correlationist: What happened 4.56 billion years ago? Did the earth accrete or not? Yes or no? The correlationist will respond by claiming that in one respect the ancestral statement is true in that an intersubjective community of scientists all come to the same conclusion when engaging in the experiments and observations. In other words, “since Kant, objectivity is no longer defined with reference to the object in itself (in terms of the statement’s adequation or resemblance to what it designates), but rather with reference to the possible universality [intersubjective consensus] of an objective statement” (15). In another sense, however, the ancestral statement must be meaningless because the referent of ancestral statements are literally unthinkable. As Meillassoux describes this correlationist position, “…it is not ancestrality that precedes givenness, but that which is given in the present [our way of encountering the givenness of the world] which retrojects a seemingly ancestral past” (16). As Husserl, a correlationist, so nicely puts it, “The existence of nature cannot be the condition for the existence of consciousness since Nature itself turns out to be a correlate of consciousness: Nature is only in being constituted in regular concatenations of consciousness” (Ideas I, 116). Husserl’s argument here is a tight knot and compelling knot indeed. For example, how is the neurologist able to reconcile his position with phenomenology (and yes I’m aware there are neurologists trying to square this circle) when he simultaneously holds that the condition of his science is the givenness of the phenomena of the brain in intentionality and that the brain is the condition for that intentionality? The two positions, on the surface at least, appear to be mutually exclusive.
It is here that Meillassoux pounces. First, Meillassoux observes that this is not how the scientist understands his own work or labor. The scientist is not interested so much in the universality and collective verification of his statements, so much as with whether or not they reveal the external referents to which they refer. This, of course, is not a real argument against correlationism, for the self-understanding of the scientist is irrelevant to whether or not correlationism is, in fact true. Second, Meillassoux asserts that the consistent correlationist should stop compromising with the scientist. The correlationist should forthrightly concede that the two levels of meaning (the naive realist interpretation of ancestral statements and the correlationist “correction” of ancestral statements) cannot be reconciled, and therefore openly state that ancestral statements are illusory, such that events described by ancestral statements could never have taken place as described.
Meillassoux concludes that every form of correlationism ultimately falls into an extreme form of idealism because it is internally incapable of admitting ancestral statements within the framework of its correlationism or of holding that ancestral events took place as these statements describe them. To do so would be to force a logical implosion of correlationism as it would require us to introduce matter or being independent of humans; or, put otherwise, it would require us to concede non-relational properties not related to thought. In a rather low blow, Meillassoux argues that ultimately correlationism falls into a position perilously close to young earth creationism, where the young earth creationist concedes that indeed the world does appear (seem) to be far more ancient than 6000 years, but that God in his omnipotence created the world to appear that way (i.e., with isotopes at a particular state of radioactive decay) to test our faith. Such is Meillassoux’s argument against correlationism.
As an aside it is worthwhile to comment on the consequences of Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism with respect to radical variants of cultural studies and social science. Meillassoux’s concerns and arguments might appear to be very remote from concerns such as we find in cultural studies and social science, such that in his text we are dealing merely with a set of very rarefied philosophical issues pertaining to epistemology and metaphysics. However, Meillassoux’s arguments cut right to the heart of radical versions of cultural studies and social science. By “radical” cultural studies and social science, I mean those variants of cultural studies and social science that hold that the world is nothing but an effect of signifiers, social relations, power, discourses, technologies, etc. Thus, for example, Lacan declares that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”. In Baudrillard we have the play of signs and simulacra. In Luhmann the world results from communicative social systems. In Foucault we have not so much a rejection of the so-called “hard sciences” (“mathesis” as he puts it in The Order of Things), as a critique of the various human sciences. Examples could be multiplied. If Meillassoux’s argument is sound (a very tall order), or at the very least strong (a much more modest inductive claim somewhat at odds with his valorization of mathematics), then these arguments cut straight to the core of some central tenants of radical cultural studies and human sciences, for these positions are correlationist (in a skeptical fashion) through and through. No longer will it be possible to claim that the world is an effect of signifiers, power, social constructions, autopoietic communicative social systems, power, discourses, etc. Now here we must be careful. The claim would not be that someone like Foucault or Judith Butler is to be rejected a priori and out of hand. They do important work in investigating the way discourse and power come to structure our understanding of the world around us. However, should it be possible to make mathematizable claims based on observations about, say, the nature of neurology, we will no longer be able to so breezily dismiss the neurological as a construction or product of discourse. Rather, these things too will have to be fitted into our accounts of human formations. The Lacanian will protest by saying “but! but! but! you’re forgetting the category of the Real!” (Zizek/Johnston), but this fails to get to the core of Meillassoux’s argument for the Lacanian real is but a twist of the symbolic, not a real that is anterior to all thought-being correlations. The point here, then, is not that we should cast all these marvelous analyses of semiotic phenomena aside. Not at all. Rather, the point is that we must make room in the ontology of our cultural studies and human sciences for things like neurons, dopamines, seratonins, genes, and all the rest. That is, we must develop the means for thinking the intersection of signs and the real in a way that doesn’t reduce one to the other or make one a mere twist or construction of the other. See, for example, the work of Massumi, Protevi, or Haraway.
My next post will take up the obvious rejoinders to this critique of correlationism and how Meillassoux responds to them.