As time has passed, I’ve become increasingly hesitant about using the term “correlationism”. For those new to Speculative Realism, it all began with a critique of correlationism. Coined by Quentin Meillassoux, “correlationism” denotes “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” (After Finitude, 5). While there’s very little resemblance between the philosophies of Ray Brassier, Ian Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux, all have shared the common feature of critiquing correlationism and of attempting to think what the being of being is without thought or as posited by our intentionality.
My hesitation with the term has arisen from witnessing how the term has evolved in these discussions since 2007. Two things in particular have bothered me about the use of the term. First, I increasingly see mere evocation of the term used as a way of arguing against other positions. “X is correlationist, therefore x is mistaken.” This isn’t really an argument, but rather just a way of dismissing through a label. Second, I increasingly see it implied that correlationism is a taboo or fallacy to be avoided in all circumstances. If, in SR circles, you point out, for example, that a color blind person processes electro-magnetic waves in a particular way, you’re likely to hear someone decry such a remark as correlationist. The problem is that I don’t see any other way of understanding and analyzing phenomena such as this. The way in which my best friend’s father experiences electro-magnetic waves is different than how I experience electro-magnetic waves, and our ways of encountering electro-magnetic waves are different than how cats and mantis shrimp experience electro-magnetic waves.
Is this correlationism? I don’t know. Correlationism is the thesis that we only ever have access to the relation between thought (or experience or language) and being, never one of the terms considered apart from one another. Something very different seems to be asserted in the examples of vision above. First, it is noted that something like electro-magnetic waves exist regardless of whether any entity registers them at all. In other words, in making such a claim I am endorsing the existence of something independent of thought. I can’t see or experience infrared light without the use of some sort of technology, but my lack of access to these sorts of electro-magnetic waves doesn’t undermine the fact that those waves exist. Second, I am making the claim that other entities such as my best friend’s father, mantis shrimp, and dogs access electro-magnetic waves in different ways. It’s not possible to make such a claim without having some access to other entities independent of how I access the world. Can I ever experience the world the way a mantis shrimp experiences the world? Of course not. However, through my knowledge of optics, electro-magnetic waves, its reactions to the environment about it, and so on, I can make all sorts of fallible inferences about what mantis shrimp have access to.
Sometimes I think my position is better described as “pan-correlationism” rather than as “realism”. “Pan-correlationism” is the thesis that everything is an “observer” or that all things have access to the world in particular ways. Put in Deleuzo-Spinozist terms, it would be the thesis that every entity is affected and affects other entities in its own way. The way in which rocks have access to the world about them and act upon the world around them is different than how trees affect and are affected by the world, as well as from how corporations, governments, octopi, persons, and tiger sharks are affected by and affect the world. In some respects, “monad” is a better term for how I think about entities than “object”. Leibniz said that every monad is a point of view on the entire universe from a particular perspective. Leibniz was saying that monads are observers. Observing how observers observe is what really interests me.
If Speculative Realism was such a wake up call for me, it’s because it made me realize how my critical and philosophical perspective was thoroughly anthropocentric. I spent a lot of time thinking about how humans encounter the world around them, and how different cultures and gendered subjects have access to the world. The problem with this orientation was two-fold: First, there was the traditional antihumanist problem. What do we mean when we speak of the human? Can we really speak univocally about the human? Don’t people of different genders, different classes, academics, autistics, construction workers, and so on access the world in different ways? Don’t we access the world differently as a function of the technologies we use as extensions of our bodies? Post-structuralist thought had already made me aware of these issues. Second, there was the posthumanist problem. What sorts of access to do access, wombats, institutions, stars, shrubberies, and so on have to the world about them?
Speculative realism, along with the discovery of new materialist feminism and actor-network theory, was a sort of wake up call for me. It wasn’t so much a rejection of my postmodern and post-structuralist roots, as a radicalization of those roots. It made me realize how anthropocentric, how humanistic, my post-structuralism was, by introducing me to a world pervaded by nonhuman observers or monads in addition to human monads. I realized that while I had taken the antihumanist turn by refusing the thesis that there’s a “universal” human, my theory was still occupied with examining what the world is for us, how we signify it, how we make use of it. SR made me realize that we are beings among other beings, caught up in a drama that far exceeds us, that we aren’t the center of the universe, and that if we are to understand the world we need to attempt to observe how other observers observe.
If the term “realism” is problematic, then this is because it suggests that the project is epistemological or one of deciding which form of access to the world is the true way the world is. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to decide whether the mantis shrimp, my best friend’s father, or the cat have truer access to the world. They have different access to the world. Nonetheless, the term “realism” is still indispensable for two reasons. First, it is necessary to retain a realism of observers or monads. The mantis shrimp can’t be reduced to my access to the mantis shrimp, but is an observer that exists in its own right. The mantis shrimp is irreducible to what it is for me or anyone else. Second, and this is really the same point, electro-magnetic waves are irreducible to how various beings have access to them. Electro-magnetic waves would exist just fine if there weren’t any sentient monads to transform them into various visual experiences (what Harman calls “sensible objects”) or to know about them. Recognizing that different monads access the world in different ways is quite different than saying everything is true. In this regard, some variant of representational realism is required as well. To be sure, the Vikings thought that lightning occurred when the god Odin struck his hammer– and our theories of lightning might turn out to be mistaken as well –but lightning can’t be reduced to whatever some group of people happen to say about it. There is a reality to lightning and some theories of lightning will be true and others false.