080212-galaxy-art-02In my first post I outlined Meillassoux’s call to revive the distinction between primary qualities and secondary qualities. In my last post, I outlined Meillassoux’s argument from ancestrality, critiquing correlationism. It will be recalled that an ancestral statement is any statement out the universe or world that precedes the existence of life and human beings. Through the arche-fossil, science, Meillassoux observes, has become capable of making claims about the nature of the world as it was preceding or anterior to all life and consciousness. Arche-fossils or fossil-matter, as Meillassoux calls them, are not entities that exist in the ancestral or time anterior to the advent of consciousness and life, but are rather material traces of the ancestral in the present. Thus the light I see emitted from certain stars in the night sky is an arche-fossil or fossil-matter as, knowing that light travels at 186,000 miles per second, the scientist is able to discover that this light took millions of years to reach us. Likewise, the radioactive decay of isotopes in an atom can function as an arche-fossil by allowing us to infer a time prior to life here on earth. Under what conditions, Meillassoux wonders, are these statements meaningful? Moreover, how is the correlationist committed to interpreting or understanding these claims?

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Recap: The Argument From Ancestrality

iran_desert_maranjab_1In his argument against correlationism, Meillassoux’s strategy might be described by reference to the question of “who are you going to believe? me or your lying eyes?” The image of the galaxy at the beginning of this post is nearly 13 billion light years away. That means light from this galaxy took 13 billion light years to reach our telescopes. Such light is therefore an example of what Meillassoux calls an “arche-fossil” or a trace of ancestrality. Our universe is, to our best estimates, 13.5 billion years old, while the earth accreted or formed 4.56 billion years ago and life began 3.5 billion years ago and humans evolved 200 million years ago. The correlationist argues that thought and being are always in relation to one another such that it is impossible to think either of the two terms apart from one another. Being can never be thought independent of thought and thought can never be independent of being. Rather, the two are always in reciprocal relation to one another.

Yet if this is the case, Meillassoux contends, then strictly speaking ancestral statements should be meaningless as, for the correlationist, there is no being without being-given and an ancestral statement is a statement prior to all being-given (see extended argument here). In other words, in making an ancestral statement the scientist purports to be capable of making a claim about being anterior to givenness or any relation to thought (since no life yet existed), yet by the lights of the correlationist argument, this should be impossible. Quoting Meillassoux,

…a consistent correlationist should stop ‘compromising’ with science and stop believing that he can reconcile the two levels of meaning [the naive realist scientific meaning and the correlationist meaning where thought is always included in the object] withut undermining the content of the scientific statement which he claims to be dealing with. There is no possible compromise between the correlation and the archhe-fossil: once one has acknoledge one, one has thereby disqualified the other. In other words, the consistent correlationist should stop being modest and dare to assert openly that he is in a position to provide the scientist with an a priori demonstration that the latter’s ancestral statements are illusory: for the correlationist knows that whay they describe can never have taken place the way it is described. (17)

Meillassoux’s argument is thus two-fold: On the one hand, if, indeed, it is the case that the arche-fossil and the ancestral statement pose a fundamental challenge to correlationism, we are given the stark alternative of either accepting the findings of the scientist or siding with the correlationist. If we choose the latter, we must reject the ancestral statement as metaphysical dogmatism. This conclusion is pretty damning for the correlationist because, in its Kantian and Husserlian variant at least, correlationism is designed to provide a sound foundation for science against skepticism. If we side with the scientist, then we must reject correlationism and revise our epistemology, accounting for how realist knowledge is possible.

On the other hand, Meillassoux’s strategy consists in uncovering a paradox at the heart of correlationist thought. If ancestral statements are true, then it follows that correlation or givenness emerged or came into being at a particular point of time from a being that was non-given or non-correlated. That is, insofar as the human and consciousness evolved at a particular point in natural history, it emerged out of a non-correlated being anterior to all consciousness. If this short-circuits correlationism, then this is because it requires the correlationist to concede being without any relation to thought. Again, quoting Husserl, “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). In its Husserlian formulation, at least, the thesis that consciousness emerged out of being or non-consciousness is incoherent, as the transcendental subject and consciousness is the condition that would allow us to produce such a science, not the reverse. Being is dependent on consciousness, nature is constituted by consciousness, not the reverse.

Rejoinders and Responses

1. Argument From the Un-Witnessed

At this point it is likely that a number of rejoinders have occurred to the advocate of correlationism. Meillassoux addresses two of these rejoinders which have, not surprisingly, often been made here on this blog by our distinguished defenders of correlationism.

First, it is likely that the first stratagem of the correlationist will be to trivialize the argument from ancestrality as a familiar and easily refuted argument against idealism (18). Here the correlationist will point out that Meillassoux has privileged temporality, time, but that he could have just as easily made the same argument with reference to spatial distance. That is, how is the correlationist to respond to claims about rejoins of space where no one is there to witness these rejoins of space?

For the correlationist, then, the argument from ancestrality is a familiar variant of the argument from the un-witnessed. The problem with the argument from the un-witnessed is that it conflates givenness with being perceptually present. Or, in other words, it thinks givenness in logical positivist terms, treating it as a sense-datum that is present to consciousness. Givenness is not, however, the same as a sense-datum but rather refers to the manner in which our experience of objects is structured by thought. Thus, for example, as I look at my coffee cup next to my computer here, I note that only some of its profiles are present to my consciousness. The other sides of the coffee cup are absent to my consciousness or beyond my view. Nonetheless, in regarding my coffee cup, I regard it not as a blue patch of color before me, but rather regard it as a coffee cup. That is, the coffee cup is given to my consciousness as a unified, three-dimensional object with a particular function or use, etc. In intending the coffee cup as a coffee cup, I co-intend the absent profiles of the coffee cup as co-belonging to the present profile. In other words, the absent profiles of the coffee cup belong to the inner horizon of the coffee cup giving it as the type of entity that it is. The key point here is that I could actualize these absent profiles by moving about the object. They are thus co-given with the present profile of the coffee cup.

The case is the same with spatial regions where no one is there to witness or observe these regions. All the correlationist needs is the counter-factual statement that were thought there this region would be given in such and such a way or would have such and such a structure. Consequently, if ancestral statements are identical to distance statements, the argument from ancestrality poses no particular challenge to the correlationist thesis.

As convincing as this argument is, Meillassoux contends that it conflates ancestrality with the un-witnessed. Givenness refers to the manner in which objects are structured for consciousness. If the temporal dimension is so crucial to Meillassoux’s argument, then this is because ancestral statements refer not to an event that is un-witnessed such that it would still be structured according to givenness, but rather the ancestral refers to the occurrence of non-given events (20). That is, a statement pertaining to spatial distance refers to an event where givenness is already operative in the universe. But the ancestral refers not to an absence in givenness like the absent profiles of my coffee cup, but rather to the absence of givenness. As such, they refer to a time anterior to givenness. Here the counter-factual will not solve the problem because ancestral events require us to think the emergence of a time in which givenness is operative from a time prior to givenness. It is for this reason that realism requires us to think being without givenness.

Before proceeding to the second correlationist rejoinder against Meillassoux’s argument from ancestrality, this is a good time to pause and address a criticism my friend Mikhail and others have often brought up in response to realism. How, they wonder, is the realist to know anything at all about the world without sensing it, measuring it, observing it, and so on? No realist that I know of, with the possible exception of Harman, would argue that we somehow come to know things as they are in themselves without engaging in some form of sensing, observing, or measuring elements of the universe we live in. Meillassoux himself says this. What is the arche-fossil if not something measurable or observable? Yet the arche-fossil is a trace of the ancestral, not the ancestral itself. As a trace it allows us to infer the existence of primary properties independent of humans. In other words, realism is not the rejection of epistemological questions tout court, but rather a rejection of the correlationist solution and conclusion with respect to epistemology.

2. The Argument from Amphiboly

The second rejoinder against the argument from ancestrality is one that Alexei has often evoked in our debates over correlationism and which I refer to as “the argument from amphiboly”. An amphiboly is an ambiguous grammatical construction that is very close to an equivocation between two senses of meaning. Thus, from the correlationist standpoint, when we speak of the subject we must distinguish between the transcendental subject which is a condition of scientific knowledge and the empirical subject or organ of the subject, which is a spatio-temporal object existing in a body. The problem with the argument from ancestrality, under this view, is that it conflates the transcendental and the empirical. Human bodies are one thing, whereas the transcendental subject is another thing.

As Meillassoux puts it, the two levels of thought (the transcendental and the empirical) are like two sides of a piece of paper that are forbidden from ever intersecting under pain of generating a paradox or contradiction (22). Thus, while human bodies and organs of thought certainly exist as empirical realities, the transcendental domain of conditions for scientific knowledge cannot be said to properly exist. Rather, the transcendental domain of conditions mark the conditions or norms under which scientific knowledge is possible. As such, they are themselves outside of time in space. In conflating the transcendental subject with empirical subjects, the realist treats the transcendental subject as being a physical thing and therefore is guilty of anthropologizing these conditions. The inscription of these conditions into time is to anthropologize them (23).

Yet this is exactly what Meillassoux does in his argument from ancestrality, when he argues that givenness emerged at a particular point in time. He is confusing the emergence of physical subjects with the transcendental subject. But the transcendental subject is not the human being– as Husserl carefully makes clear throughout his work –but rather, the transcendental subject is the set of conditions for the possibility of science for all beings of knowledge, regardless of whether or not they are human. It is what must be the case for science to be possible. If this is the case, Meillassoux’s question about the emergence of givenness from a time that is not the time of givenness is merely an empirical question, not an ontological question.

In response to this strong argument, Meillassoux points out that while we can concede that these conditions cannot properly be said to exist, we must nonetheless still be able to say there is a transcendental subject (24). That is, the transcendental subject must nonetheless be operative or must take place. In this vein, comments Meillasoux, nothing prevents us from asking “what are the conditions for the transcendental subject or this “taking place” of the transcendental subject?

Meillassoux argues that the transcendental subject remains indissociably linked to a point of view on the world. When we think of Kant’s critical revolution, one of the key concepts of this critique lies in the assertion of our finite relation to the world. It is precisely this that restricts our knowledge to receptivity and ensures that it is always bound to a horizon and that total knowledge can only be a regulative idea. Were our relation to being not governed by finitude, we would have immediate access to the totality of being, thereby undermining Kant’s critique of metaphysics in the transcendental dialectic. There it will be recalled that the paralogisms, antionomies, and ideas of reason all fall into irresolvable conflicts and problems because the subject attempts to go beyond the limits of experience and make claims about the nature of being that exceed our finitude. Thus, the critical gesture– as Heidegger so nicely articulates in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics –lies in affirming the manner in which our relationship to being is inextricably bound to a point of view or finitude.

It thus follows that the condition for the possibility of the correlationist subject, the transcendental subject, is point of view. But now, our question becomes, what is the condition for the possibility of point of view? Although he does not mention him by name, Merleau-Ponty has the answer. In order for us to have a point of view on the world, we must be attached to a body. If the point of view and the transcendental subject are to be instantiated rather than merely exemplified, if it is to take place, it must be attached to a body from which it cannot be separated. For only the body has a place in the world. But the body is an object among other objects in the world. It is an exemplary object to be sure as Husserl in Ideas II and III and Merleau-Ponty both recognized, but it is nonetheless a physical object. As a result, the transcendental is the condition of bodies (for-us), but the body is the condition of the transcendental. It is the non-empirical condition for the transcendental, for without the body the transcendental could not take place.

Thus, Meillassoux will say that “[a]n entity is said to be instantiated by an individual when that entity does not exist apart from its individuation; and it is said to be merely exemplified by an individual if one assumes that the entity also exists apart from its individuation” (25). But if the transcendental subject must necessarily be instantiated in a body for a point of view to be possible, if it cannot exist apart from its individuation, then it follows that the question of ancestrality, of a time before the living body of consciousness, cannot be dismissed. While the body might not be the sufficient condition for the taking place of the transcendental, it nonetheless is a necessary condition (ibid.). We are thus back to the question of the birth of givenness, or the emergence of givenness from a time of non-givenness. But if that the case, then we cannot avoid the question of how it is possible to think a being without givenness or a realist position.

Remarks on Cultural Studies, Human Sciences, and Ethics

Those deeply entrenched in cultural studies and the human sciences are rightfully suspicious of realist ontologies. Not only are phenomena that are social, linguistic, and cultural regularly naturalized by realists (as in the case of the essentializing tendencies of socio-biology and evolutionary psychology, not to mention among conservatives that have a tendency to naturalize certain traits of humanity that are highly contingent historically), but the elementary gesture of modernity, as Latour observes in We Have Never Been Modern, was to split the world into two domains, the natural and the cultural, and discard everything belonging to the cultural realm. Yet in the last two centuries we have made massive advances in our understanding of signs, language, society, and cultural phenomena of all sorts. In evaluating Meillassoux’s argument, it might thus appear that he is returning to that modernist stance of discarding all of these advances, of dismissing them outright. No wonder, when confronted with the realist, the cultural correlationist and human scientist is so quick to deny the primary/secondary distinction all together so as to preserve this hard-won and, frankly, very real, realm altogether.

However, in evaluating Meillassoux’s realism and arguments it is worthwhile to remember that in calling for the revival of the primary/secondary quality distinction, Meillassoux is calling for us to revive the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Meillassoux does not deny the existence of secondary or relational properties, but merely argues that we must admit the existence of primary qualities if we are to ground the coherence of our best and most exciting science. In affirming the existence of primary qualities that we can know, Meillassoux is claiming that there are properties of objects that are not the result of the objects relation to us. Or, put a bit differently, these properties are not dependent on us.

Yet in affirming the existence of primary qualities, of qualities that aren’t the result of correlation, nothing prevents the affirmation of dependent or relational qualities and, more fundamentally, the reality, even if emergent, of these secondary or primary qualities. The domain of the human sciences and cultural studies thus becomes a domain that studies these relational properties. The case would be similar with respect to ethics. Asserting a realism about primary qualities does not destroy the possibility of ethics because the ethical is a domain of how humans relate to one another in the world about them. Perhaps, if Meillassoux contributes anything to the human sciences and cultural studies, it lies in opening up a rich domain where, in addition to semiotic phenomena, we can also begin to speak about the role played in social relations by our bodies with respect to neurology, genetics, etc. The point here would not be to reduce the cultural to these biological properties, but to examine how they’re imbricated and woven together creating novel results characterized by phenotypical plasticity. In reading French inflected cultural studies one gets the impression that the amazing work done in the fields of neurology and biology haven’t even taken place. This comes as no surprise given that these are complex fields and we cannot know everything. But if Donna Haraway, Brian Massumi, and John Protevi have taught us anything, it is that these are rich fields that promise to shed new light on a whole host of social phenomena. We do not need to become vacuous and dogmatic gene centrists or socio-biologists in order to draw from these rich domains.