Meillassoux


After grading all day and making substantial progress (hopefully I’ll be done tomorrow, yay!), I sat down and read the introduction and first chapter of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. Although I am of the realist orientation myself, I can already tell that this book will be deeply valuable to my own philosophical project. Braver begins the first chapter with a brief survey of the five core theses he sees as characterizing realist thought. An examination of these theses might be useful in clarifying just where my own Object-Oriented Philosophy diverges from anti-realist positions, but also diverges from classical forms of realism.

The core thesis of any realism is what Braver refers to as the Independence Thesis or R1 (where the “R” presumably denotes “Realism”). As Braver puts it,

The first component in the Realism Matrix is metaphysical: a set of objects or state of affairs, which does not rely upon us in any way, exists. The furniture of the universe does not rely upon us for existence or for essence, excluding trivial examples of things we have made or which depend upon us in a relatively obvious and uninteresting ways such as thoughts and beliefs. (15)

Here I think Braver identifies the shared position of any and all realist ontologies. To be a realist is to endorse the thesis that there are beings that exist independent of any correlation between mind and world. In other words, for the realist the verb “to be” is not shorthand for “to be correlated”. Rather, the questions of metaphysics involve an inquiry into being that possesses no dependency relation within a correlation. Such beings would be what they are regardless of whether or not we relate to them.

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I’m sure these posts are getting old by now, but despite the acrimony and heated nature of these discussions, I do think a good deal of progress has been made in clarifying points, posing questions, and developing positions. I doubt that ultimately there will be any consensus, but this development of respective positions is itself worthwhile and, I think, it is refreshing to see an actual philosophical debate taking place rather than endless exegesis on texts without asking the much broader question “is this position true?”. It’s a shame that these discussions have to get so ugly. I’m guilty of being ugly in some of my rhetorical tactics, as are, I think others. Over at Grundledung, there’s a post up discussing the recent debates surrounding Kant, Meillassoux, realism and anti-realism, announcing a more thorough discussion of Kant to come. At the end of his post, Grundledung writes:

In the posts that follow, I will concentrate on three cases, with an eye towards why the readings of Kant matter. (I won’t address the recent hot topic concerning time and ancestrality, since I can’t devote the energy to it, especially as tempers are flaring once again.). Again, the aim will be to show why a focus on Kant is not a morbid fixation but a useful piece of the puzzle. I want to show how the cases I’ll look at bear upon substantive issues in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, even when abstracted from the historical issue of what Kant thought. Also, I shall try to counter the second-guessing of the motivations of critics of speculative realism, providing some symptomatological musings of my own. However, I also want to issue a plea for a bit of old-fashioned bourgeois civility, which would not go amiss on all sides. I’ve no interest in questioning other people’s intelligence or integrity.

Unfortunately I’m having difficulty linking directly to the post, but that aside, I cannot agree more. It is difficult to practice this sort of civility in the heat of debate, but I do think it’s something worth striving for. As I’ve remarked before, I do not think that sarcasm and jest translate well in this medium, and they often are counter-productive to the course of discussion, shifting the discussion to the speakers involved rather than the analysis and evaluation of the claims being made. Everything spirals out of control. It’s difficult to understand why these philosophical discussions get so heated or ugly.

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Over at Speculative Heresy, I think we get to the core of the issue in the debate between realism and anti-realism, as well as how philosophical debates should be conducted. Responding to Mikhail, Nick gives a succinct summary of Meillassoux’s argument, writing:

I think we may be talking past each other to some degree, but let me try to clarify what I’m saying.

To be clear, ‘absolute time’ is not referring to Newtonian time. Einstein empirically discredited that (and Kant and Leibniz, as you note, philosophically discredited it). Absolute time, as Meillassoux uses it, is just a short hand for a time outside of the correlationist time (again, I’ll take Kant and Husserl as being the archetypes of this view).

Now when I say that absolute time is a fundamental assumption of cosmology, evolution, etc., I mean that these sciences are speaking of a time before the very possibility of correlationist time. To deny that an absolute time outside of correlationist time exists, is to deny that these sciences are speaking about anything. They literally make no sense if we assume time (and really, existence) burst onto the scene with the emergence of thought. But to argue that absolute time exists is only to accept a very minimal definition of it – that correlationism emerged within something larger. What that something is, is undetermined so far and a problem for future work. But that it is, seems indisputable to me. (And I believe Hawking’s quote says no more and no less than that, as well.) But maybe this is another manifestation of our differend, since I take these empirical sciences to clearly show the existence of an absolute time, whereas you are more focused on the philosophical conundrums?

The problem for correlationism then, as Levi succinctly points out in his post, is that correlationism sees the mind as condition for Nature, whereas the existence of absolute time shows Nature to be the condition for mind. (Although I’d need to read Kant’s later work to see how the Opus Postumum fits into this schema. I do have Forster’s book, on your recommendation, which I should really crack open.)

As for Hawking’s quote, I think he’d need to respond to the idea of structural realism. No one is denying that theories are used to give us knowledge about reality. What the instrumentalist says is that these theories are only pragmatic and have no truth-value, whereas the structural realist will say that this is incapable of explaining the predictive success of science.

To this, Mikhail responds, remarking that:

Nick, I think I understand your position but the problem with Meillassoux’s argument succinctly is this: while it looks as though he is critiquing correlationism from “inside” by showing how it cannot account for something like arche-fossil, he in fact is critiquing correlationism from outside perspective by imposing the meaning of time on correlationism that it would not accept. As I tried to show, his refutation of correlationism rests on the assumption that correlationism does not share, i.e. that time is something that is a property of mind-independent world.

Before proceeding to parse Mikhail’s actual argument, such as it is, let’s pause to note something. Mikhail criticizes Meillassoux for critiquing correlationism from the outside. I may be mistaken in my understanding of what Mikhail is suggesting here, but I think this is a revealing moment in his understanding of philosophical methodology and what it means to critique another position. If I am reading Mikhail faithfully, for him the only legitimate critique of a philosophical position would be an immanent critique. From the standpoint of immanent critique, you work within the constraints of whatever philosophical system you happen to be working with, bringing nothing external to bear on the position. A famous example of immanent critique would be nearly any movement in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. When Hegel critiques, for example, sense-certainty in the opening of the Phenomenology, he doesn’t bring anything from outside the claims of sense-certainty to show that this position is inadequate, but rather shows how the very claims of sense-certainty itself fail to say what it purports to say, thereby generating an internal contradiction with itself. Very different examples and procedures of immanent critique can be found in the works of Derrida or in the works of hermeneuticians such as Gadamer. In all of these cases the procedure is to restrict oneself to the text and the claims of the text in analyzing the text. All of us trained in the tradition of Continental philosophy more or less were trained in this tradition of critique and hermeneutics. In far less sophisticated terms than those of Hegel, Derrida, or Gadamer, this would be the standard pedagogical practice where the professor forbids the student from rejecting the claims of Aristotle’s Physics by bringing the discoveries of contemporary physics to bear. Here the reasonable pedagogical aim is for the student to understand Aristotle in his own terms, to attend to Aristotle’s own arguments, and to develop “close reading” skills (as Adrian Peperzak always used to say to us) rather than dismissing texts from the history of philosophy outright. From this pedagogical perspective, the only legitimate critique of a philosopher’s position in a student essay would be the demonstration of an internal contradiction in that position or the failure to take account of something crucial or fundamental with respect to our experience.

While I believe this pedagogical approach is laudable in its aim of cultivating close reading skills, developing an attentiveness to text, and promoting a respect for the history of philosophy, I also think that in textually oriented philosophy programs has had the negative and unintended side effect of developing philosophy students that see this mode of textual approach as the way that philosophy as such should be conducted. That is, rather than a question of determining the truth with respect to these questions, philosophy almost entirely becomes an engagement with texts from the history of philosophy and often texts from a highly specific canon. I also think it is worthwhile to ask why this approach to philosophy has largely been embraced by private liberal arts religious schools, rather than state schools (there are, of course, notable exceptions such as Suny Stonebrook, Memphis, and Penn State). The question here, however, would be that of why Continental philosophy, with its text based approach, has found such a welcome home in private religious schools. I don’t have the answer to this question but I do have some suspicions.

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171103065Over at Perverse Egalitarianism, Shahar has a brief post up on Mach and realism. Mach, in his The Analysis of Sensations, writes,

It has arisen in the process of immeasurable time without the intentional assistance of man.. It is a product of nature, and preserved by nature. Everything that philosophy has accomplished…is, as compared with it, but an insignificant and ephemeral product of art. The fact is, every thinker, every philosopher, the moment he is forced to abandon his one-sided intellectual occupation…immediately returns to [realism]. Nor is it the purpose of these “introductory” remarks to discredit the standpoint [of realism]. The task which we have set ourselves is simply to show why and for what purpose we hold that standpoint during most of our lives, and why and for what purpose we are…obligated to abandon it.

I think Shahar here draws attention to an important point with respect to the speculative realist movement pertaining to what it is and what it is not. It seems to me that it is important to distinguish between naive realism and other variants of realism. In the passage you cite above, Mach appears to be referring to naive realism. His remark here is not unlike Hume’s famous quip about his skepticism. As a philosopher, he remarked, he is a skeptic, unable to demonstrate the necessity of cause and effect relations, etc. However, the moment he plays billiards (i.e., is no longer doing philosophy), he believes in the absolutely necessity or reality of these cause and effect relations.

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jesus_dinosaurI promise this series of diaries will come to an end soon, but for the moment I soldier on.

One of the most striking moments in the first chapter of Meillassoux’s After Finitude occurs when he equates correlationism with the philosophical equivalent of young earth creationism. Given that it is very likely that the vast majority of philosophers take a very dim view of young earth creationism, this comparison cannot but seem like a rhetorical low blow. Yet is there something to it? Is there validity in this comparison.

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02turtleubirrAs I sit here regarding the eighty student essays I have to grade over the course of the next few days– essays that I’ve already had in hand for too long –I naturally cast about for ways to procrastinate. Having completed my posts on Meillassoux’s argument against correlationism (here, here, and here), and having, over the last few days, had an intense, though very productive, discussion with Mikhail surrounding these and related issues (here, here, here, and here), I find myself wondering just how damaging Meillassoux’s argument is. Does Meillassoux’s argument really land a fatal blow to correlationism? I think that depends.

If we are to understand Meillassoux’s argument from ancestrality and against correlationism, it is necessary to understand why he focuses on time. To do this, we need to recall a bit about Kant and how Kant solved the problems of space and time in the Critique of Pure Reason. That is, we have to look at what Kant actually says about the nature of time. If Meillassoux chooses to stake his claim for realism on the issue of time, then this is because primary qualities, qualities that are said to be “in the thing itself” and not dependent on us, are generally understood to be mathematical properties. All that I can know of mathematical properties, the story goes, are those aspects of these properties that can be mathematized. Thus, as Descartes said, “this class of things [primary qualities] appears to include corporeal nature in general, together with its extension; the shape of extended things; their quantity, that is, their size and number; as well as the place where they exist, the time through which they endure, and the like” (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Hackett, Fourth Edition, 61). What are we speaking of when we speak of the mathematical properties of an object if not the spatio-temporal properties of the object? Meillassoux, of course, wants a much broader domain of primary qualities than shape, size, mass, duration, etc., so as to make room for new properties discovered in science. The point is that when he speaks of primary qualities he is basically speaking of spatial and temporal properties that are subject to mathematical representation. The claim isn’t that the property is a number, but rather that it has a mathematizable structure discoverable through measurement, experiment, observation, etc.

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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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