Quick post on Meillassoux

January 2, 2009

So over the last few weeks I’ve read (I think) everything by Meillassoux that’s been translated into English (not that that’s a huge body of work, obviously). I’m not going to write a big analysis / critique – but I thought I’d put up just a few brief comments.

1) Meillassoux’s work is religiously oriented. Indeed it seems to me that one of the main motivating forces of his work is the desire to guarantee the possibility of physical resurrection. I’d be inclined to argue that you can infer this from After Finitude – but in Spectral Dilemma he pretty much comes out and says it. I’m puzzled by the way Meillassoux’s work is being received as a rigorous anti-theist materialism, or even as compatible with same.

2) Meillassoux’s critique of ‘fideism’ is politically problematic. “Contemporary fananticism cannot therefore simply be attributed to the resurgence of an archaism that is violently opposed to the achievements of Western critical reason; on the contrary, it is the effect of critical rationality, and this precisely insofar as – this needs to be underlined – this rationality was effectively emancipatory“. Or: “The modern man is he who has been de-religionized precisely to the extent that he has been de-Christianized.” That latter sounds pretty close to clash-of-civilisations op-ed polemic to me – not to mention highly idealist, in the sense of focussing on history of thought stuff rather than social or political change, in an account of contemporary social movements. “There are certainly historical reasons”, Meillassoux writes, “for the contemporary resurgence of religiosity, which it would be naïve to reduce to developments in philosophy alone…” But that’s the only gesture to non-idealist accounts of contemporary fundamentalism in his translated oeuvre.

3) Also (unrelated point): unless I’m missing something, isn’t the critique of fideism in large part an attack on Badiou?

4) This is closer to the heart of it: there’s an extraordinarily nervy switcheroo in After Finitude. Meillassoux starts off critiquing ‘correlationism’ – which he defines as the idea that nothing can exist independent of its ‘correlation’ with consciousness. “Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another… Consciousness and its language certainly transcend themselves towards the world, but there is a world only insofar as a consciousness transcends itself towards it.” Then he draws a distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ correlationism. One form of ‘strong’ correlationism is defined as the idea that there exists something utterly independent of consciousness. Much of Meillassoux’s argument is then directed against this form of ‘strong’ correlationism – which, as far as I can tell, is exactly the opposite of correlationism as originally defined. Meillassoux thus ends up arguing for correlationism (as originally defined) as against ‘strong’ correlationism; yet he continues to frame his polemic as if he were attacking the idea that reality is reducible to given experience / thought. “Where the Parmenidean postulate, ‘being and thinking are the same’, remained the prescription for all philosophy up to and including Kant, it seems that the fundamental postulate of strong correlationism can be formulated thus: ‘being and thinking must be thought as capable of being wholly other‘”. Since the latter is what Meillassoux is in fact attacking for much After Finitude, I’m baffled as to why anyone would accept his self-presentation as a critic (rather than an exemplar) of the assimilation of reality to its correlation with consciousness.

5) Connected to this: there’s a large confusion in Meillassoux’s treatment of probability theory. Roberto Trotta does a good job, in Collapse Vol. II, of addressing this (off the cuff). But as far as I can tell Meillassoux’s whole ‘ontological’ argument is based on a conflation of subjective and objective accounts of probability – he thinks that all probability-claims are frequentialist, and just ignores Bayesianism.

6) Which is how Meillassoux is able to move from the ‘logically’ necessary to the ‘ontologically’ necessary – the content of Meillassoux’s own correlationism. Hallward’s Radical Philosophy review of After Finitude emphasises this nicely: Meillassoux doubly conflates ontology and epistemology. FIrst he reads a lot of thinkers who are making essentially epistemological claims about reality-for-us as making ontological claims about reality itself. Then Meillassoux argues that something like logical necessity gives us access to ultimate reality – the absolute – without making it clear how this claim of ontological knowledge is meant to be guaranteed or justified. Meillassoux thinks that his sense of necessity is able to do what Descartes’ ontological argument failed to: guarantee knowledge of ultimate reality through the simple structure of thought. It’s entirely unclear why we should credit Meillassoux’s argument with this power.

7) I also, for what it’s worth, think Brassier has a good point when he argues that Meillassoux can’t legitimately distinguish between the two forms of temporality he uses to differentiate reality itself and reality for us.

8 ) Plus Meillassoux’s ‘internal’ critique of correlationism strikes me as almost maximally vulnerable to Derridean-type critiques of presence. (c.f. Meillassoux’s desire to rescue Bergson’s pure perception in his Collapse Vol. III essay; haven’t we been through this before?). Meillassoux seems to think that we need to accept the supposedly dominant ‘correlationist’ reduction of the world anterior to experience as given-to-present-experience-as-anterior – and then move beyond this perspective by showing that it covertly presupposes claims about the ‘absolute’. Obvious response: why? Can’t we just reject correlationism, and then not have to move beyond it?

9) Obvious response 2: lots of people already reject correlationism; Meillassoux seems to think that every modern thinker except him is a correlationist; whereas in fact correlationism (as originally defined; not as defined post-switcheroo) seems to adequately characterise some specific philosophical positions (Meillassoux seems particularly focussed on phenomenology), and not a whole lot else. I have a hard time believing that science as practised, for example, is ‘correlationist’.

10) Meillassoux clearly wants something like a transcendental subject. He regards it as a mysterious paradox how consciousness, understood as transcendental subject, could emerge from matter. But this, it seems to me, is pretty much only a paradox if you’re defining consciousness in a way that excludes in principle any scientific account of its emergence. Meillassoux seems pretty resolutely anti-Darwinist in this respect.

11) This in turn makes me suspicious when Meillassoux inveighs against creationism. I’m not totally clear what’s going on here – but I’m confident that the miraculous or supernatural creation of the human is a much more live possibility for Meillassoux than his polemicising against creationism would suggest. This in turn explains the slightly bizarre emphasis on the ‘arche-fossil’ – the arche-fossil pretty clearly doesn’t pose a challenge to much post-Kantian thought; it does pose a challenge to creationism. Not a coincidence, then, that Meillassoux’s introduction of the concept of the ‘arche-fossil’ is footnoted with a reference to Dominique Lecourt’s America Between Darwin and the Bible. I think creationism is a much more central intellectual preoccupation, for Meillassoux, than the explicit argument of the text would suggest.

12) For what it’s worth, you can play the Being-as-capital parlour game with Meillassoux, too. “If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute, what we see there is a rather menacing power – something insensible, and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm. We see an omnipotence equal to that of the Cartesian God, and capable of anything, even the inconceivable; but an omnipotence that has become autonomous, without norms, blind, devoid of any of the other divine perfections, a power with neither goodness nor wisdom…” Remind you of anything?

12) Finally – this is a bit of a low blow… “[I]f we assume that the segment of the sequence has this very great length – or in other words, that the ‘world’ lasts long enough – then our assumption of randomness entitles us to expect the occurrence of a cosmic period in which the law of gravity will seem to hold good, although ‘in reality’ nothing ever occurs but random scattering. This type of ‘explanation’ by means of an assumption of randomness is applicable to any regularity we choose. In fact we can in this way ‘explain’ our whole world, with all its observed regularities, as a phase in a random chaos.” The Logic Of Scientific Discovery, p. 190. I’m aware, of course, that Meillassoux sees his original contribution as the distinction between probabilistic chance and ‘absolute’ contingency (a distinction that unfortunately rests, imo, on massive confusion about how probabilistic explanations work); and I’m aware that The Logic of Scientific Discovery isn’t making any ontological claims. Nevertheless – as a general rule of thumb: if Karl Popper sounds a lot like a precursor, you’re probably not as radical as you think.

UPDATE – January 2012: Adam Kotsko provides a public service

Just so everyone knows, according to the excerpts from The Divine Inexistence published in Harman’s book on Meillassoux, the logical consequences of an embrace of the radical contingency of all being and the inexistence of God are as follows:

– The belief in creation ex nihilo
– Anthropocentrism: the contingent becoming of the universe reaches its pinnacle and unsurpassable goal in humanity
– Faith in the resurrection of the dead
– Hope in a coming mediator figure who, though possessing the divine power necessary to inaugurate the resurrection, empties himself
– An ethics based on living in joyful hope of the resurrection

It’s a good thing we have Meillassoux to tell us about these radically new and unheard-of ideas! I wonder if the other sections tell us about such innovations as a ceremonial cleansing to enter the messianic community or a symbolic meal commemorating the mediator figure.

I feel I might as well take this opportunity to point out that it was demonstrably obvious back in January 2009 that (to quote the post above) “Meillassoux’s work is religiously oriented. Indeed it seems to me that one of the main motivating forces of his work is the desire to guarantee the possibility of physical resurrection… I’m puzzled by the way Meillassoux’s work is being received as a rigorous anti-theist materialism, or even as compatible with same.”

An important corollary, is that those who scoffed at the idea that Meillassoux’s work had a religious component – and, indeed, those who strenuously insisted that no true anti-theism was possible without an engagement with Meillassoux’s epochal, unprecedented theoretical breakthrough – were idiots.

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