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Responses to Quentin Meillassoux’s “After Finitude”

Response I: On Ancestriality, and its problematic with Correlationsism and Empiricism

In the section “Ancestriality” of his After Finitude, Meillassoux lays out the stakes of what he designates as the “problem of ancestriality” and the status of scientific and empirical facts as a method of reconstructing history. The exposition that Meillassoux starts with and lingers with throughout his argumentation is, as Badiou succinctly puts it, answer the first-person question: “what can I know?”.1 It on one hand, resonates with a problem of phenomenology, that emphasizes on first-person pre-objective perspective that one encounters the world through, and Kantian transcendental idealism on the other, that emphasizes on comprehending the world through the three realms of finite reason (pure reason, practical reason, and judgment). Both Kant and phenomenology as such—both to which Meillassoux refers to as ‘correlationist’ perspectives—stumble upon an unsolved problem: objective truths. For both Kant and to some extents phenomenology, ‘truth’ is a category that is formed based on agreement among minds possessing the faculties of reason and the capacity to perceive; it is an intersubjective concept2 that is verified and agreed upon by a community of beings, minds, and perceivers. The fundamental thesis of the ‘correlationist’ point of view, is that thinking and being are terms that cannot be considered apart from on another.3 On the other hand, there is realism and empiricism—to which Meillassoux refers to as ‘naive realist’ perspectives—that verify truths and facts that are not contingent on the point of view of reason, perception, nor being; a historical ‘fact’ or phenomena is constructed and established disregarding whether there was a witnessing being of that phenomena. It is precisely within this incommensurable deadlock between ‘correlationist’ and ‘naive realist’ perspectives that Meillassoux seeks to unravel the problematic that had plagued modern philosophy.

The problem that Meillassoux begins with is that of the famous problem that was posited by Husserl: when one perceives the color red, how can this relation between the ‘thing and I’ be a fact without a perceiver? The Cartesian attempt to resolve this dilemma, was to presupposes that qualities, extension and the noumenal ‘thing-in-itself-ness’ of a perceived object, can be reduced into geometric and mathematical terms, whether that consists of their length, size, width, movement, depth, figure and size.4 To some extents, Meillassoux thesis argues for this reduction and attempts to demonstrate that it can be commensurable with the ‘correlationist’ point of view, although he also extensively problematizes the ‘naive realist’ aspect in the side he argues for. The problem inherent in Cartesianism dogmatism is that it claims that primary qualities (wavelength, temperature, chemical reactions) can exist without their adjacent secondary qualities (color, heat, smell), which basically disregards the phenomenological problem of ‘redness’ posited by Husserl in the separation of the ‘thing’ and the ‘I’ which is inherent to Cartesian mind-body dualism.5 This stance claims universality to the qualities and ideas that a mind can comprehend geometrically, mathematically and empirically, while claiming secondary qualities as unnecessary and arbitrary. For Kant, universality exists for as long as it can be verified intersubjectively; it is not subjective, neither is it objective—precisely because it relies on agreement among rational minds grounded in individual their relation with the world—where secondary qualities are interrelated with primary qualities (thinking and being). While for the Cartesian, empiricist, and realist point of views, subject-world correlation becomes unnecessary while it posits that universality can be achieved through deduction. In Kantiansim, secondary qualities are not just the living creature’s relation to its world, while for Descartes, they entirely are and therefore are unnecessary in formulating and constructing facts.

The point that Meillassoux makes about the definition of what counts as scientific fact “is no longer what conforms to an in-itself supposedly indifferent to the way in which it is given to the subject, but rather what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community”6. It is this remnant of Wittgensteinian ‘language games’ that permeates all human relation with the world that makes human stuck in the ‘correlationist’ perspective. Even science in one way or another is stuck in this position since even according to Kuhn’s conception of a paradigm—where the methods and techniques employed under different scientific frameworks are supported by a consensus of scientists who ultimately attempt to establish intersubjective agreeableness based on observed phenomena—do not grasp phenomena in-itself and universals.7 Meillassoux points out the problem of language in which almost all human discourse about the world is trapped in through Wolff’s words:

To be conscious of the tree is to be conscious of the tree itself, and not the idea of the tree; to speak about the tree is not just to utter a word but to speak about the thing. Consequently, consciousness and language enclose the world within themselves only insofar as, conversely, they are entirely contained by it. We are in consciousness or language as in a transparent cage. Everything is outside, yet it is impossible to get out.8 (emphasis my own)

This ‘imprisoned cage’ is what confines consciousness and language (which also includes metaphysical, scientific, and empirical presuppositions about the world); exploring the exteriority (a world were things-in-themselves are known, the noumenal realm, etc.) of this cage while completely omitting ones confinement to the cage (being, finitude of reason, etc.)—is the biggest philosophical dilemma that haunts all modern thought. But it is also precisely this dilemma that makes realists and empiricists ‘naive’ according to Meillassoux, since even they are trapped in a cage although they pretend to have overcome and transcended the confines of this cage. An illuminating example that demonstrates the problematic of empirical sciences who follow the ‘naive realist’ view, are the ‘archi-fossils’ that are used for estimating the date of accretion of the earth at 4.56 billion years ago. As Meillassoux puts it, these empirical methods attempt to reconstruct and produce statements “about events anterior to the advent of life as well as consciousness.”9 In doing so, these empirical sciences reconstruct time in a way that is ‘ancestral’ that pass from the state of non-being into being; he then asks: “how to conceive of a time in which the given as such passes from non-being into being?”10 And more precisely, how would ‘correlationism’ interpret these statements in which the thinking-being and subject-object relations had been ruptured and separated?

Response II: Beyond the Cartesian Circle and Back

In Chapter “Metaphysics, Fideism, Speculation” Meillassoux sets out the theoretical ground on which thought can become something uncorrelated, that is, “capable of subsisting without being given” and which no longer necessitates a correlate: a thinking being.11 Since the aim of empirical sciences is to establish concrete facts, and if knowledge cannot be grounded in the absolute, then ancestral and empirical statements can no longer make sense outside the realm of human reason. The argument that Meillassoux attempts to set out in this chapter, is to first expound the Cartesian ontological proof of God, who is as a mediator that grounds the mind’s capacity to apprehend the absolute existence of extended substance. It was Descartes’s intention to use the proof of God as a foundation of human sciences and absolute knowledge about the world; it was an attempt to establish a scientific, metaphysical, a priori epistemology, on which all subsequent knowledge can be built, referring to it as ‘First Philosophy’. Meillassoux demonstrates why the Cartesian proof is philosophically outdated and why the road to Kantianism was a progression that occurred because the Cartesian argument was incapable of withstanding the correlationist critique. If Descartes claimed that the thing-in-itself can be understood if the mind were grounded on a ontological proof of God, Kant claimed that the thing-in-itself cannot be known, but does maintain that it is “thinkable12; for, if the thing-in-itself did not exist, there would be “appearances without anything that appears”, which is a contradiction for Kant. This would also constitute a form of epistemological nihilism, were only pure nothingness prevails beneath phenomena, leaving the mind nothing but a world that is not knowable and graspable to any degree. Subjects end up nothing but unfolding phenomena in “absolute nothingness into which everything (knowledge, facts, proofs, etc.) could dissolve once more were the human species to disappear”13. This is a point of view that both Descartes’s and Kant’s frameworks attempt to triumphantly oppose, but it is a problem that Meillassoux nevertheless sees latently dwelling if the dichotomy between correlationisim and realism remains unabridged.

The main critique against Descartes’s attempt to ground absolute knowledge—based on an ontologically proven, ‘clear and distinct’ conception of a supreme being—is that it does not prove “the existence of the absolute, because the necessity it affirms is merely a necessity for us14. Even if Descartes proves the existence of God that grounds the faculties of the mind to apprehend the absolute, it hints on a remnant of correlationism, which makes Descartes’s argument easily susceptible to a correlationist refutation. Another problematic aspect in Descartes’s proof is the circularity of his proof, known as the ‘Cartesian Circle’15: he claims that he can prove God’s existence through ‘clear and distinct’ ideas, thought he also claims that he can only derive ‘clear and distinct’ ideas after he has proven God’s existence. With this in mind, Meillassoux seeks to avoid such circular arguments by proclaiming “we must uncover an absolute necessity that does not reinstate any form of absolutely necessary entity”16.

Meillassoux then proceeds to define the distinction between ‘weak correlationsim’ and ‘strong correlationism’. For Meillassoux, ‘weak correlationsim’ is reflected in Kant, while ‘strong correlationism’ lapses into an emphasis on phenomena, relativism and correlation between thinking and being—while also sometimes intersecting with epistemological nihilism. Meillassoux succinctly formulates ‘strong correlationism’ as follows: “it is unthinkable that the unthinkable be impossible. I cannot provide a rational ground for the absolute impossibility of contradictory reality”17 (Figure 1 is an attempt to map out the field of thought that Meillassoux is working with.) An aspect that underlies both of these correlationist views however, is the nature of the relation between thought and being, which consists of “our essential finitude18. It is precisely this precondition that allows finite reason to establish facts, or facticity, which provides “the minimal organization of representation: principle of causality, forms of perception, logical laws, etc.”19. However, for the correlationist view, these facts, even logical ones, evade universalism; that is, facticity is never absolute since it is directly correlated to the world that this facticity exists within. It is within this shaky and weary epistemological unresolved circumstance, where on one hand certain, truths and logical deductions can be made, but on the other, they have no foundation that grants them absoluteness and therefore entail no more grounding than absurd or illogical claims. It is, as Meillassoux puts it, the end of metaphysics; “the end of absolutes”; “de-absolutization of thought”; “an exacerbated return to the religious”.

It is on this point that Meillassoux turns to the question of religion and the significance of religiosity that prevail in the thought of 20th century thinkers, such as Levinas and Deridda. This return of the religious is also counteracted with its reactionary counterpart: anti-religion. Both sides however, as Meillassoux points out, rest on the same Cartesian epistemological “shaky foundation”; anti-relegion is just another “faith pitched against faith”, just another naive “fideism20. Both religion and anti-religion are rejections of the metaphysical, which paradoxically makes them already metaphysical; one has no more legitimization in the absolute than the other; and so what is left, is pure agnosticism or nihilism, depending on one’s correlational preference. Is not this an opening that is left only for existentialism? It seems like existentialism is indeed the only way out of this dilemma for as long as the problem of correlationism and the problem of unreachibility of absolutes remain unresolved; we can only encounter the Sartrean ‘existence precedes essence’, where it is up to us to create and find meaning in this inherently meaningless, de-absoluted world. This represents the grand paradox, where any grounding in the absolute has been lost after Descartes’s theistic foundation for realism was dismissed by correlationist post-Kantiansim, but a return to Descartes would also mean accepting a rationalistic religiosity—a naive realism. If Descartes was trapped in a ‘Cartesian Circle’, we Kantian moderns are trapped in a correlationist one.

Naive Realism Realism Midpoint Weak Cor. Strong Cor. Epistemological Nihilism
empiricism Descrates impossible? Kant phenomenology, relativism existentialism, Sartre?, Nietzsche?
Bacon? Locke? early Wittgenstein? Kuhn? Historical Materialism: Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, etc. Hegel late Wittgenstein Dada, the Avant-garde movement
Richard Dawkins, religious anti-religion Meillassoux, materialist and speculative realism - - Levinas? anti-rationalism Trump?

fig.1: A diagram attempting to outline the the spectrum between realism and correlationism.

Response III: Unreason and Hyper-Chaos as a Precondition for the Absolute

In the chapter “The Principle of Factiality”, Meillassoux sets out the notion of ‘factuality’ by first defining it as a “non-facticity of facticity”21 in an attempt to ground a notion of the absolute by charging facticity against itself, so to speak. Since facticity itself consists of “the minimal organization of representation” of various facts and logical propositions about the world—that are not elevated to an absolute status22—Meillassoux attempts to find an absolute kernel within facticity. What allows the constitution of this movement is the grounding of the absolute in the notions of ‘unreason’, ‘Chaotic absolute’, and the conceivability of death and ‘non-being’—under a concept referred to as the ‘principle of factiality’. By doing so, Meillassoux first provides an argumentation that absoluticizes ‘unreason’, or put in other words, the acceptance of the impossibility to deny the possibility of all absurdities and potentialities, which is deemed as a position of ‘strong correlationism’. He then finds a way out of what he deems as the ‘correlationist circle’ onto the Kantian plane of ‘weak correlationism’, where the thing-in-itself cannot be known, but can be thought of. This serves as a ground for the subsequent chapter in which Meillassoux will escape the “Kantian in-itself” and derive a “Cartesian in-itself” through mathematization, “it is no longer the logical principle of non-contradiction that is absoluticized, but rather the mathematical statement qua mathematical”23.

Meillassoux begins the chapter by distinguishing the ‘corelationist cogito’ from the ‘Cartesian cogito’; he defines the Cartesian cogito as a form of “species solipsism”. Although Descartes’s main concern is to derive the absolute through a first-person solipsistic meditation, it also entails an establishment of a ‘First Philosophy’ as a foundation that can be shared among many minds; a foundation of grounding truths “upon and intersubjective [and communitarian] consensus among consciousness”.24 Meillassoux then seeks to expound the ‘strong correlationist’ view, which entails an “absolutization of facticity”25. What this view ultimately posits, is that the absence of reason, or ‘unreason’, is precisely the absolute ontological property of things in-themselves—meaning, that nothing is for certain; at some point, trees, stars, physical and logical laws—even the law of non-contradiction—can all collapse at any instant. This does not necessarily imply that Meillassoux is not denying that the law of non-contradiction is “the minimal norm for all rational argumentation”, but that it does not suffice to “guarantee the absolute impossibility of contradiction”26. Therefore, what distinguishes this view form the Kantianesque ‘week correlationist’ view, is that things-in-themselves cannot be known, not because of reason’s finitude, but precisely because ‘unreason’ beneath things-in-themsleves—is the very absolute condition of all things. As he puts it, one no longer upholds the principle of sufficient reason, but the “absolute truth of a principle of unreason”27.

At first glance, it might appear that Meillassoux is justifying a notion of rational absolute based on a claim that unreason and irrationalism prevails all phenomena and knowledge in the world, which makes the project interesting but also potentially contradictory. However, this is part of another careful exposition that he has in mind. One on hand, Meillassoux is doing yet another sneaky back-stabbing move after carefully expounding the arguments for the side he argues against; although on the other hand, he builds up his argument by expounding the blindspots of the arguments against which he caries out thhis stab. In the attempt to “cut through the corelationist circle”… If for Descartes, God is a necessary being, who in turn, grounds necessity; for Meillassoux, the conceivability of non-necessity is what grounds necessity28. Death is the exemplary case; it is within the mind’s capacity to conceive death (or non-being) as a possible state of being, which for Meillassoux, is the “human thought’s most remarkable power—its capacity to access the possibility of its own non-being, and thus to know itself to be mortal”29. If for Descartes, the intricate procedure that his ontological proof of God consists of is what grounds necessity; for Meillassoux, it is a being’s simple capacity to conceiving the possibility of its non-being, a common existential thought that almost all human minds come across at a certain point in their life, sometimes even at a young childhood age. It is in this manner, that Meillassoux draws correlationism out of its circle, by grounding the absolute necessity of the conceivability of non-being without resolving to the naive presupposition of an absolute necessary being. But even at this point, Meillassoux does not cease carrying out yet another sneaky backstab, but what results in what he claims, a “Pyrrhic victory”30; since what he is left with, is an absolute that is nothing but “hyper-Chaos”, which instead of guaranteeing order guarantees the opposite—disorder. Therefore, by having this kind of hyper-chaotic absolute in place that gives no guarantee for any absolute status for scientific discourse, the destruction of all order and knowledge is the only kind of absolute one is left with.

Meillassoux then asks, how can then “Chaos possibly legitimate knowledge of the ancestral?”31 First, the notion of non-contradiction is still a crucial component for grounding any access to the absolute, since without it, it becomes nearly impossible to make sense of anything; but paradoxically, the basis for the proof of non-contradiction becomes the chaotic absolute itself, which also removes the requirement for a existence of a necessary being.32 Second, in an attempt to answer the Leibnitzian question “why there is something rather than nothing?” without resolving into fideist belief that the world was gifted to us and whose absolute outdoors always remain inaccessible,33 Meillassoux proclaims that it is necessary that something exist, because it is necessary that contingent things exist.34

Response IV: The Contingency of Natural Laws

In the chapter “Hume’s Problem”, Meillassoux sets out the argumentation for one of the central claims of his thesis, namely, that everything in the world even the laws of nature is contingent. Given the ‘principle of factiliaty’ that had been expounded in the previous chapter, Meillassoux derives that even the law of nature could change at any moment, not because there is an even higher superior law that dictates this change, but that there is no cause and no reason for this potential change whatsoever35. This conclusion is derived from a question referred to as the “Hume’s problem” which concerns with whether there is a potential to ground the necessity of casual connection. This becomes problematic for any pursuit of absolute knowledge about the world, since if the very laws through which one comprehends the world can be undermined at any moment, then the necessity of these truths is questionable due to their contingency. As Hume concludes, “the ‘ultimate cause of any natural operation’ must remain unknown to us” and therefore no a priori knowledge about the world can be known36. Meillassoux proposes a solution to this dilemma by applying Cantor’s set theory in order to explain the very foundation of our mathematical reality, while also seriously defending the claim that physical laws are contingent and therefore variable.

One of the most significant contributions to the philosophy of science was Popper’s theory of ‘falsifiability’ which posits that every scientific paradigm and framework must always be subject to fallibility given that there is a potential that a scientific theory could arise that will falsify its former theory and therefore cause the former to adjust to the falsifications posed by the later, or to become denounced and replaced by the later altogether. However, as Meillassoux points out, Popper’s theory of falsifiability does not posit that the laws of nature themselves are variable, but rather, that scientific frameworks which attempt to understand the laws of nature are variable37. This theory still functions within the prepositions that the laws of nature are static since science in general, relies on the ‘condition of possibility’ that guarantees the repeatability of experiments and the potential to derive common laws based on them38. The question that Hume raises concerns whether physics and laws of nature themselves can persist in the future and whether we can be confident that they won’t. Meillassoux’s claim is that these laws are themselves variable.

Meillassoux then outline the three types of responses that are likely to be posed against this claim39:

  1. The metaphysical response which is that of Leibnitz who posited that since God created our world, which is also perfect of all God’s creations, casual necessity is already a necessary and guaranteed principle.
  2. Hume’s sceptical solution a. Rejects any metaphysical presupposition that casual necessity is necessary. While the law can be demonstrated to be functional, they cannot be guaranteed to function the same way in the future. b. Poses the question regarding not why laws are necessary but what makes us want to believe in their necessity; to which Hume proposes that it is just a matter of—to some extents naive—“belief” and “custom”.

  3. Kant’s transcendental response consists of the claim that that the necessity of laws can be proven insofar as the mind is capable of representing them. Since these laws already condition the possibility of having a conscious experience in the first place, then it is only because of the causality that governs phenomena. If the law were to change, then the very possibility of a conscious experience would not be possible since conscious experience is possible only insofar as the law of causality maintains.

Meillassoux’s ‘speculative refutation’ of the ‘necesseterian argument; consist of defending the contingency of the laws by demonstrating that all the three responses, except for Hume’s, already operate on certain metaphysical presuppositions. What unifies these theories is ‘the necessitarian inference’ that proclaims the stability of laws as an imperative condition by first assuming the necessity of law in the first place. Meillassoux also points out the inherent “absurd fear” that underlies the thought of not having a world the conforms to a static law of nature40: What is usually referred to as ‘chance’ or an ‘anomaly’ when an observed phenomena does not conform to an underlying scientific framework, Meillassoux instead attempts to understand it as a contingency of natural law; law of contingency is therefore radically contrasted with the law of chance and probability41.

With this in mind, Meillassoux then proceeds in defining the so called “numeric totality” that grounds every possible continent law, and every conceivable phenomena that can occur within any possible world or variation of the law itself42. The thought that our universe is a totality of many possible universes with different laws, types of phenomena, etc. is therefore also the underlying aspect of this supposition. Thus, the conceivable becomes part of totality of cases that become part of a mathematical set, however big it may be43. By borrowing the thought from Alain Badiou’s Being and Event, Meillassoux seeks to follow the usage of mathematics as a form of liberation from “calculatory reason” and reconcile math with philosophy in the same way that it had been during the times of Plato. The underlying concept behind this thought is Cantor’s set theory and the idea of the transfinite that free’s the reliance of knowledge based on contingent laws since “a priori totalization…[that] can no longer lay claim to any logical or mathematical necessity”44. By demonstrating the “absolutness of matematical discourse“ however, an answer to the most important problem in Meillassoux’s project still remains—the problem of ancestriality—which is the topic that perhaps, will be answered in the following chapter.

  1. Quentin Meillassoux, trans. Ray Brassier; After Finitude: An Essay on The Necessity of Contingency (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008), p. vii 

  2. Meillassoux, pp. 4, 15, 16 

  3. Meillassoux, p. 5 

  4. Meillassoux, pp. 2—3 

  5. Meillassoux, pp. 11-12 

  6. Meillassoux, pp. 4-5 

  7. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 45 

  8. Meillassoux, p. 6 

  9. Meillassoux, p. 9 

  10. Meillassoux, p.22 

  11. Quentin Meillassoux, trans. Ray Brassier; After Finitude: An Essay on The Necessity of Contingency (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008), p. 28 

  12. Meillassoux, pp.31, 35 

  13. Meillassoux, pp.35-6 

  14. Meillassoux, p.30 

  15. In all fairness, Descartes also is aware of this problem and offers a possible way out himself. 

  16. Meillassoux, p.34 

  17. Meillassoux, p.41 

  18. Meillassoux, p.40 

  19. Meillassoux, p.39 

  20. Meillassoux, p.46 

  21. Meillassoux, p. 79 

  22. Meillassoux, p. 39 

  23. Meillassoux, p. 81 

  24. Quentin Meillassoux, trans. Ray Brassier; After Finitude: An Essay on The Necessity of Contingency (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008), p. 50 

  25. Meillassoux, p. 52 

  26. Meillassoux, p. 68 

  27. Meillassoux, p. 60 

  28. Meillassoux, p. 62 

  29. Meillassoux, p. 59 

  30. Meillassoux, p. 64 

  31. Meillassoux, p. 65 

  32. Meillassoux, pp. 71, 67 

  33. Meillassoux, p. 72 

  34. Meillassoux, p. 74 

  35. Quentin Meillassoux, trans. Ray Brassier; After Finitude: An Essay on The Necessity of Contingency (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008), p. 83. 

  36. Meillassoux, p. 90, citing Hume (1957), p. 44. 

  37. Meillassoux, p. 85 

  38. Meillassoux, p. 86 

  39. Meillassoux, pp. 87-9 

  40. Meillassoux, p. 100 

  41. Meillassoux, pp. 96-7 

  42. Meillassoux, p. 103 

  43. Meillassoux, p. 103 

  44. Meillassoux, p. 107