Wednesday, 2 December 2009


If we really think about it, are we satisfied with the current political, economic and moral system which we live in today? I, for one, am not. Consumer fetishism despicably forces on us a false sense of contentment while simultaneously binding us in perpetual slavery to the insidious chains of planned obsolescence and eternal production. Beyond the images of marketing and our illusory objects of desire a crippling nihilism awaits us, as we inevitably fall deeper into despair and alienation. Coupled with this we bow down to political masters who’s intent is not our happiness and security but their own commodity comfort, which by default requires the relative poverty of those that labour to sustain it. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent collapse of the Soviet Union our despair has been fortified by the belief that there is no way out; no alternative. The alternative that was, communism has been seen to be the horror it was, barely distinguishable from the fascism and oligarchism it sought to negate.
However, there is an alternative. We should stop thinking in such black and white terms and realise that just because the Bolshevik attempt at utopia failed miserably that it will always fail. Bolshevism failed because it tried to operate in the same way as capitalism and ultimately refuted itself.
The idealist should never stop trying to envisage a better world and has a duty to attempt its manifestation. Following in the footsteps of idealist (in the ambitious not philosophical sense) Marxists such as Lukacs we have began to systematically design a utopian society, merging the ideas of various and sometimes contradictory philosophers of the past; from Plato to Zizek. What we have come up with is the Academocracy. A society ruled by intelligent civil servants with unprecedented and centralised power equalling only their sense of duty to the people and the state. An elective dictatorship that ends petty bourgeois squabbling and destructive self interest. Private business is allowed but marginalised; suffrage is limited to those who deserve it. A fleeting lust for mere things is relegated to an adoration of life and state. Nobody goes cold or hungry because what is put into the state is given out tenfold to those who need it most. Marxism meets Platonism in this, the most ideal of utopias. This account, however, is unfair in its brevity. For this reason Fred and Ed Aspbury offer you the chance to come and listen to us as we outline our critique of modern society and this, our solution. We look forward to your constructive criticism.

Date and venue to be announced.

Philosophy Society Meeting 3/12/09

The first of this year’s Philosophy Society events has been organised and will take place next Thursday (3rd Dec) at 6pm. We will be having an informal discussion on Greek philosophy. If you have any problems or interesting discussion topics on the subject than please come along and, as Socrates says in Plato’s Republic, we will see where the wind of conversation carries us. I will provide some refreshments for which there will be a voluntary collection pot to cover costs. We expect the discussion to be around an hour long but we can stay as long as we like (within reason of course).I will prepare some topics myself in case we are faced with dead air. This would be a good chance for everyone to iron out any confusion from the first year section of the course on Greek philosophy and allow us to get to grips with some philosophical concepts still pertinent today. Afterwards the willing will be heading into the polis for some Dionysian revelry. See you there!

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

Monday, 30 November 2009

Visiting speaker session 2

Good to see (and hear) so many of you at last week's guest speaker session. Below are details for next week's session which again promises to be an interesting and lively affair.
(NB this is a similar lecture to last year's which some of you may have attended)

I look forward to seeing you there!
Ruth Griffin

Is there anything that could not count as a moral issue?
Wednesday 9th December from 2-4pm
George Eliot 089 (GEE 089; LT3 Clifton Campus)
Trevor Curnow, University of Cumbria

In this lecture, Trevor will consider why he became interested in ancient philosophy, his experiences of moral philosophy before he did, and why he thinks ancient philosophy is in many ways superior to modern philosophy in its approach to life.

Enquiries may be directed to: