This week my students and I began exploring Meillassoux’s After Finitude. The first chapter of Meillassoux’s After Finitude begins with a call to rehabilitate the discredited distinction between primary and secondary qualities. It will be recalled that secondary qualities are purely relational, existing only in the interaction between the body and the object or the subject and the object, whereas primary qualities are qualities that are in the object itself, regardless of whether any body or subject relates to them. Generally primary qualities are treated as any qualities that can be mathematized or quantified (extension, duration, mass, wavelengths, numerical temperatures, and so on). When elucidating secondary qualities Meillassoux gives the nice example of the pain you feel in your finger when burnt by a candle flame. To be sure, the candle flame causes this pain, but it cannot be said that the flame has pain as one of its qualities. The pain only exists in the relationship between my finger and the flame. Thus, in the traditional sorting of primary and secondary qualities, qualities like colors, tastes, textures, scents, sounds, pains, pleasures, and so on are all purely relational in character. And insofar as these qualities are all relational, it cannot be said that there is anything like colors, tastes, textures, scents, pains, and pleasures in the world itself.

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Generally the sorting between primary and secondary qualities is designed to distinguish between what is objective and subjective. When my friend and I share a bottle of wine together and he finds it sweet and I find it to be hearty and robust, we don’t dispute one another’s experience of the wine because we recognize that how the wine tastes is a question of how the two of us are put together. In the lexicon of onticology, the two of us translate the wine differently because of our endo-relational structures or compositions. By contrast, when we place a gold statue in a tub full of water we both conclude that the statue has such and such a mass based on the displacement of the water in the tub. The former qualities are thus treated as secondary qualities, whereas the latter are primary qualities. The mass is in the gold statue (i.e., mass is, among other things, the power to displace in this way), whereas the taste of the wine is in us.

Kant, of course, complicated all of this. Perhaps the single most fundamental lesson to be drawn from Kant’s Copernican revolution is that there are only secondary qualities. This comes out most clearly as a result of Kant’s treatment of mathematics. The pre-critical philosopher, it will be recalled, wishes to distinguish primary and secondary qualities mathematically. Quantifiable properties of objects are primary qualities of objects because they are mathematical. However, if we follow Kant, this thesis can no longer be sustained because mathematics is grounded in space and time and space and time are properties not of things-in-themselves, but of our minds. Whether or not objects themselves are in space and time is something that, according to Kant, we can never know. The cash-value of this move is that we can now explain 1) how we are able to have synthetic a priori knowledge of mathematics through thought alone (rather than observation), and more importantly, 2) how it turns out that these mathematical truths apply to appearances in the world.

The price to be paid is that our knowledge is now only a knowledge of appearances or phenomena (not things-in-themselves), which amounts to the claim that there are only secondary or relational qualities. Kant doesn’t think this is a very high price because what matters is that we all come to the same conclusions in our measurements and mathematical calculations. Truth now becomes a matter of intersubjective consensus grounded in subjects sharing the same transcendental structure of subjectivity, rather than an adequation between thought and thing-in-itself. As a consequence, the category of primary qualities is abandoned altogether and the category of secondary qualities has to be complicated. Where before secondary qualities were the domain of the subjective, we now have two types of secondary qualities: the subjectively subjective and the subjectively objective. The subjectively subjective secondary qualities are qualities like tastes. These remain variable both in a single individual and between individuals. By contrast, the subjectively objective secondary qualities are qualities subject to quantification. If these categories are objective, then this is because we share the same transcendental structure of mind and therefore these properties are intersubjective. If these properties are nonetheless subjective, then this is because they exist only as relational.

At any rate, setting all these intricacies aside, one of the fascinating things about secondary qualities is that they don’t seem to be fixed. Consider the first time you drank coffee. It is likely that as a young person you found coffee revolting and immediately proceeded to dump all sorts of sugar and creme in your cup. At least, this was my experience. However, now, after many years of drinking coffee, not only do I find coffee delicious, but I find coffee saturated with creme and sugar revolting. Likewise with works of art. It is likely that the young child encountering Shakespeare for the first time finds him dull and uninteresting in comparison to his fantasy novels filled with dragons, warriors, and sorcerers. Yet later these fantasy novels come to be experienced as dull and uninteresting and Shakespeare’s plays set one’s mind alight. Similarly, a pinot noir might initially be experienced as bland and without character, yet as the person drinking the wine begins to discuss its properties with another person drinking the wine, somehow the taste of the wine seems to change and it shifts from being uninspired to being inspired.

What is going on in these cases? How is this possible? Compare a Kantian-Deleuzian account of experience with a Humean account of experience. For David Hume our impressions or sensations (qualities) are given and synthesis is only subsequently exercised on the atomic sensation through association. The idea of a quality changing is literally unthinkable. For the Kantian or the Deleuzian, however, the quality or sensation is itself the result or product of a synthesis. When Kant argues both 1) that maths are based on synthetic a priori propositions, and 2) that maths are based on inuition, he is quite literally treating maths as constructive in the sense of bringing new intuitions into existence, rather than simply passively receiving them as given. They have to be built. So what is going on here is a genesis of receptivity. Receptivity or how we qualitatively receive the world is not something that is simply “given”, but somehow is something that is built, that develops, and that changes.

So this is something I’d like to understand. How is this sort of genesis of receptivity possible? How is it possible that I can go from finding coffee revolting to finding it delicious? How is my experience of Shakespeare transformed such that I pass from finding him dull and boring to finding him beautiful and heart-pounding? In these sorts of cases it is not that I have somehow been duped or that I am deluding myself. Quite literally my qualitative experience of the object has been transformed. New qualities come into existence for me. But how does this take place? This question, I think, is significant not only for questions of aesthetics (isn’t it amazing that somehow discussion of works of art can transform our experience of works of art?), or tastes and sensations, but also for cognitive orientations to the world. I suspect, for example, that the hard-right conservative quite literally dwells in a world that is fundamentally different than mind, populated by very different local manifestations of objects and events, and local manifestations that are entirely invisible to me. Yet how is this possible, what processes take place, leading to these different forms of receptivity. Perhaps one feature that distinguishes humans from other animals (and these would be differences of degree) is that our receptivity is not hard-wired but seems to itself learn and develop, allowing new signs to populate our world. Yet I confess that I find the process by which this takes place entirely mysterious.