Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Modernity's New Dogmatism

  1. Modernity’s New Dogmatism: Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude

    After Finitude is a very interesting and highly stimulating read, but an infuriating one for a philosopher because it offers us an ‘argument’ without any clearly defined premises. In fact, the book’s main thesis amounts to a dogmatic assertion of a new ‘metaphysics’ - of the radical contingency of the Kantian ding an sich - and it cleverly tries to see off all possible philosophical objections to this claim, especially the idea that this claim is in fact an impossible one, via a very intricate weave of daring intellectual leaps and highly suspect and at times clearly sophistic conceptual turns.
    As a work that connects to the contemporary zeitgeist, where metaphysics has returned ‘after a fashion’, the book may be seen as an attempt to articulate the tacit metaphysical ground of modernity itself - a metaphysics of contingency as ‘pure possibility’, where everything, even possibility itself, might turn out to be other than it is. Any metaphysics of possibility is of course at the same time a metaphysics of ‘radical hope’, and this is perhaps why the book has registered an intellectual appeal with progressives looking for a metaphysical home after the demise of Hegelianism.

    The book also introduces a new concept: correlationism. In essence, correlationism is the doctrine of the ‘primacy of the unseparated’ - that the object as such cannot be separated from the way it is thought and/or experienced. Thus according to correlationism, ‘existence’, ‘reality’, ‘being’ - whatever you want to call it - is a product of the correlation between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ realms. Without both of these realms, interacting in some way or other, there can be no ‘world’ as such. The question for Meillassoux is that if thought is necessarily correlated with its object, and that this is the condition of possibility for knowledge of the object per se, how can thought think and ultimately know the object in itself - that is, the object in its absoluteness? He thinks that it can and that science has already achieved this in many ways.
    It is of course nice to have new concepts - and Deleuze reminds us that conceptual innovation lies at the heart of the modern philosophical enterprise - but the broader questions that we need to ask here are legion. How new is this concept really? Is it simply another name for post-idealist ‘modern philosophy’? Why did so many people take correlationism so seriously in the first place? If we reject correlationism, especially the idea of the ‘for us’, can we really say that thought it possible, given the fact that thought is something that delivers something, an idea, a conclusion, for us?
    However, Meillassoux believes that knowledge of the absolute is possible and that modern science has allowed thought to transcend its ‘imprisonment in correlationalism’ because it allows us to think a time before the advent of the ‘correlation’ itself and thus, in the correlational scheme, a time before the very condition of possibility of thought and ‘the world’. How can thought think a time prior to its own conditions of possibility; that is ‘think a time’, an event, when there was no thought? This is what Meilassoux terms the paradox of the ‘arche fossil’, a paradox that in his view can only be resolved if we accept that the arche fossil represents an absolute. As he puts it, science is able to discover the science of its own absoluteness - slick philosophical rhetoric, but what exactly does this mean? I guess, that 'science can think itself, can think that conditions of its own possibility'. This is a radical statement of anti-phenomenological intent, and After Finitude rails against phenomenology in both its Heideggerean and Wittgensteinian forms.

    In rejecting correlationism, and thus the Kantian critical turn that denies thought’s accessibility to the ‘in itself’, Meillassoux asks whether this implies a return to pre-Critical metaphysics. He answers this question in the negative and in order to defend the rejection of the metaphysical as classically conceived, he makes an important distinction between ‘metaphysics’ and ‘knowledge of the absolute’.
    How then can thought think and ultimately ‘know the absolute’ in Meillassoux’s view? How do we give a philosophical account of how this mode knowledge is possible in the teeth of the Kantian objection that we cannot know the absolute as it transcends our finite human cognitive capacities? Here, Meillassoux draws on the ontological argument as deployed by Descartes in the Third Meditation; especially the idea that a concept, by virtue of one its essential properties, must necessarily exist as an object; and that given the necessary existence of this object with this property, then thought can legitimately reach out beyond itself into the in itself and render it an object of possible knthinkableowledge. However, as the ontological argument is in Meillassoux’s view invalid, it is only the overall telos of this argument, the attempt to provide a metaphysical ground for epistemology, that must be mirrored in any attempt by thought to think the absolute. The argument is invalid according to Meillassoux as there can be no examples of necessary existence because there is ‘no contradiction in a determinate entity not existing’ - and so we must be able to think an absolute necessity that does not posit itself as absolutely necessary. Therefore, we need to be able to articulate an ontological argument for a ‘non-metaphysical absolute’ - an absolute that is not necessary but contingent.

    How do we do this? With Kant the absolute is ‘thinkable’ but ‘unknowable’. For Kant as it is thinkable it cannot be self-contradictory. However, in saying that it cannot be self-contradictory to what extent is Kant conceding that the 'in itself' is in fact is some sense knowable? Logic, the logical, is the basis of what Meillassoux terms ‘facticity’, of the existence of ‘facts’ as such - and as such there is an important relationhship between logic and knowing. Without logic, there can be no facts - this is why logic is factical and thus for Meillassoux something ontological. In saying that the ‘in itself’ must obey this aspect of our ‘facticality’, are we postulating a necessity de re? Meillassoux clearly seems to think so. But a question emerges here that the author never really addresses - what is necessity for Meillassoux? For most analytic philosophers - who also agree that the world is radically contingent - there are no de re necessities; only cognitive or conceptual necessities; that is necessities at the level of intellectual principles not at the level of the world in itself. Necessity is ‘in the mind’ and, as Meillassoux points out, in many ways correlationism begins with the idea that we cannot postulate necessity of things in themselves. Meillassoux never really addresses this question, the question of how to conceive of necessities de re without them becoming mere conceptions, although it is in some way implicit in everything that he says.

    One of Meillassoux's targets is the return of religion. In what Meillassoux terms ‘strong correlationism’ it is unthinkable that the unthinkable be impossible. For him this means that, paradoxically, everything becomes thinkable and the absolute is relativised and rendered ‘religious again’, albeit in a radically non-metaphysical way. As unthinkable the in itself could be anything, every interpretation is as good as any other and this supports the spread of what the author terms ‘religiosity’ - something that he thinks is the result of the de-Christianisation of philosophy; that is the stipulation of the ‘absolute out of intellectual bounds. Thus his book attacks the forms of postmodern fideism that seem to grant an irrationalist legitimacy to religious belief of all varieties, so that all are rendered cognitively equivalent, and he stands upright against 'the immunity of conceptual rationality that religious belief seems to enjoy'. In this way, for him, modern man has been re-religionised precisely to the extent that he has been de-Christianised. The falling away of Christian metaphysics has given rise to a pious celebration of mystical conceptions of the 'in itself' over and above those derived by real, authentic, thinking. As he puts it in another pithy phrase ‘the more thought arms itself against dogmatism the more defenceless it becomes against fanaticism’. However, this, again does not mean that we need to return to the old ‘dogmatic’ metaphysics that argues that the absolute can be understood because it has a rational support. For him, the absolute is absolutely irrational - it is without reason, based upon what he terms the principle of ‘unreason’.

    Overall, for Meillassoux what underlies correlationism, its absolute as an ontological presupposition, is radical contingency; or the idea that the absence of reason can only be the ultimate property of any entity. In radical inversion of Leibnzian rationalism, correlationism in this way ‘absolutises’ contingency and this absolute, the absolute of facticity, when properly conceived, is not only thinkable, but a necessary postulate of all thought. Radical contingency is akin to the law of non-contradiction, all correlationists have to assume it on pain of non-contradiction. It is simply self-contradictory to claim that things might not have been other than they are if we accept that the 'facticity of facticity', that is the facticity of the world (that cannot itself be thought of as a fact and thus represents something speculative). In this way, anything can be other than it is - at the level of being itself. Even being itself might not be. This radical open ended ontology ‘materialises’ Hegel in a new way and its relationship to Marxism is intriguing - but it needs more argument if it is to be rendered convincing. It seems to remain something of a dogmatic assertion and thus much more akin to the pre-critical metaphysics than the author would obviously care to admit.

    How though do we get from here to the Cartesian understanding of being as mathematical? This will be a subject for the next instalment....

Neil Turnbull

1 comment:

  1. Neil,

    Recently, Harman has been writing on his blog that Meillassoux is in fact "pro-correlationist". He claims that what Meillassoux is doing in "After Finitude" is not abolish correlationism, but rather radicalize the nature/culture divide in order to go through the correlationist model and reach some sort of Hegelian absolute knowledge on the other side. As such, Meillassoux (according to Harman) is actually more a Zizekian/Badiouian/Lacanian than any of the other SR folks (Grant, Harman, Brassier).