[ The following material is posted for discussion in connection with the recent exchanges about the resurgence of metaphysics in epistemology   -   HFJM ]



by Simon Critchley


Review of :

Quentin Meillassoux


An essay on the necessity of contingency

Translated by Ray Brassier

160pp. Continuum. £16.99 (US $19.95).

978 0 8264 9674 1

In :  Times Literary Supplement 28 Febr 2009, p.28

Posted  21 March 2009




Hume awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber by showing the limitation of reason.  As Simon Blackburn has recently remarked of Hume, reason is only "a flickering, unstable and unreliable guide" in showing what underlies our natural beliefs, such as thinking that every event has a cause, that there is an objective order of events in time and space and that the future will resemble the past in a universe governed by stable laws.  Kant accepts Hume's critique of what he calls dogmatic metaphysics, but refuses his scepticism.  He defends reason by making a distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves.  The latter are unknowable - albeit thinkable - and rationally vindicatory knowledge is restricted to the former. What this entails is that human beings have knowledge of an empirically real world of appearances, but no access to an absolute reality.  In other words, we have knowledge of the world as it appears to us, but no knowledge of the world independent of us.   This, of course, recalls the famous Lockean distinction between primary and secondary qualities - that is, between qualities that are properties of objects independent of any observer (solidity, extension, figure and the like) and those qualities that are subjective (colour, sound, taste, etc).  Against Kant, it is precisely this distinction that Quentin Meillassoux wants to defend, claiming that we can have access to primary qualities, to the world as it is in itself without being dependent on the existence of observers.



For Kant, although the empirical realm of which we have knowledge is really "out there", it is fashioned by the way in which we think about it.  The external material objects that I experience in perception are nothing but "mere appearances" or "representations".  "Apart from [these representations] they are nothing", Kant writes.  In other words, the world is what you make of it. It is real but dependent on us.  This is the thesis of transcendental idealism: the outside world exists but it is only the correlate of the concepts and categories through which we conceive of it.   For Meillassoux, what happened in 1781 with the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason was a "catastrophe".   For the past two centuries philosophy has been dominated by varieties of what he calls "correlationism".  The latter is contained in what Kant calls his "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. 



Rather than knowledge corresponding to its object, as in traditional or "dogmatic" metaphysics, objects correspond to knowledge and are therefore dependent on the activity of the subject.  For the Kantian, there is a correlation between thought and the world, but a radical separation of thinking from the thing-in-itself, from what Bernard Williams called "the absolute conception of the world".  It is precisely thought's connection with the absolute, understood as the observer-independent reality explained by scientific research, that Meillassoux - like Williams - wants to defend.    In a metaphor repeated in After Finitude, Meillassoux says that he wants philosophy to return to "the Great Outdoors" ("le Grand Dehors").   Since Kant, and more particularly in traditions of idealism and phenomenology, philosophy has been imprisoned in a transparent cage, a prison house of language or concepts, where everything that is is only the correlate of the subject that conceives of it. 



For the English-speaking reader, the force of Meillassoux's polemic against correlationism requires some explanation.   In order to see what he's getting at, it is necessary to appreciate the way in which French philosophy has been dominated since the 1930s by "les trois H":   Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger.   The correlationism of Hegel's idealism might appear obvious, but Meillassoux's real target is phenomenology. 



Husserl's entire enterprise is based on the idea of a correlation between the intentional acts of consciousness and the objects of those acts, the distinction between what he calls noesis and noema in his later work.  Although the intellectualism and Cartesianism of Husserl's phenomenology is heavily criticized by Heidegger, the latter's project of fundamental ontology is also profoundly correlationist.   The central proposition of Being and Time is :   "Dasein (or the human being) is being-in-the-world".   Although the world that Heidegger describes is what he calls "the work world" of everyday things in a practical context, which has led some contemporary pragmalists to find parallels with William James and John Dewey, the world is simply a correlate of Dasein.   Without Dasein, there would be no things and no world.



The pervasive influence of Heidegger's critique of Husserl is obvious to anyone familiar with French philosophy from Sartre and Merleau-Ponty through to Levinas and Derrida. But what exactly is the problem with correlationism ?   Well, it is twofold.   First, by denying thought any rational access to primary qualities or things in themselves, correlationism allows that space to be filled by any number of irrational discourses, such as religion.   In a powerful critique of the theological turn in French phenomenology, for example in the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Meillassoux shows how the flip side of correlationism is fideism, that is, the rather vague discourse on the numinous that one finds in many followers of Heidegger, but also - it should be added - in Wittgenstein's curious remarks about the mystical towards the end of the Tractatus.   Such is what Meillassoux calls "the religionizing of reason".    He writes, rightly in my view, "The more thought arms itself against dogmatism, the more defenseless it becomes before fanaticism".  This might be seen as an unkind gloss on Kant's remark from the Preface to the First Critique: "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith".   Why, one might respond, should philosophy make room for faith if the latter is irrational ? 



But the second and major problem with correlationism is that it is wrong.   Meillassoux argues lucidly that insofar as contemporary philosophy has abandoned primary qualities it can make no sense of statements like "the universe came into existence about 13.5 billion years ago".   These are what Meillassoux calls "ancestral" statements that refer to a time prior to the existence of humans.   Correlationism has no way of making sense of such ancestral statements except by claiming that since they were made by humans (given that even physicists also belong to that species) they are not really statements about the past but projections of ancestral statements from the perspective of the present.   Thus, the statement about the origin of the universe is only a statement made by a human being like us and addressed to a community of scientists.  The correlationist either has to presuppose the material world that he philosophically disavows or simply deny its existence and fall prey to the windiest idealism.   If the correlationist affirms the former he is an intellectual hypocrite, if he embraces the latter he is defenceless against irrationalists like believers in creation.



This is why we have to get back to the Great Outdoors.   If Continental philosophy since Kant has been stuck in the prison house of subjectivity, consciousness or Dasein, where the world is what you make of it, then philosophy has to reacquaint itself with the absolute understood as physical reality that is independent of us and that science tries to explain.   Does this rejection of Kantianism mean that Meillassoux is defending the sort of dogmatic metaphysics debunked by Hume ?   Not exactly.   Let's take the example of Leibniz's metaphysics.  For Leibniz, metaphysics is governed by the principle of sufficient reason, namely that for every entity x that exists there must be a sufficient explanation of it.   For Leibniz, of course, this necessitated the existence of God as the source of rationality.   The doctrine that Meillassoux calls "speculative realism" defends the idea that reality is absolute, namely it is independent of us and knowable, but abandons the principle of sufficient reason.   There is an absolute reality, but it is utterly contingent.  Meillassoux also argues in some detail that the laws of nature are contingent.  Reality has the character of a sheer fact that is governed by what Meillassoux calls a "principle of unreason", an absolutely contingent property.  For Meillassoux, and this is the kernel of the book, the response to Leibniz's question "Why is there something rather than nothing ?"   is  "For no reason".   The classical metaphysical questions "Where do we come from?",  "Why do we exist?" are not pseudo-questions.    But the answer is nicely disappointing :  "From nothing, for nothing".



After Finitude aims at the rational elaboration of an ever more determinate concept of contingency, what Meillassoux calls "chaos".    The book's subtitle is "An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency".   This means that there is no ultimate necessity to the universe explained by God (Leibniz) or concealed to reason (Hume).   There are no a priori principles that govern nature, just a brute contingent chaos that is not subject to any principle of sufficient reason, but which reason can demonstrate and explore.



This brings us to the most speculative claim of the book.    Meillassoux claims that only mathematics can demonstrate the relative stability of contingency.   This is where he relies on the work of his teacher, Alain Badiou, and Badiou's mathematical ontology.    But the inspiration for Meillassoux's project is classical and his book is essentially a defence of the project of the mathematization of nature that one can find in Galileo or Descartes.   In a move that would make Kantians red in the face, Meillassoux even defends the seemingly indefensible :  intellectual intuition.   It is as if mathematics gives us the keys to look straight into the heart of reality.   As Ray Brassier, Meillassoux's translator, has pointed out, perhaps this is a remnant of the very idealism that stands most condemned in After Finitude.   Having accepted Hume's argument that there are no a priori principles that govern nature and that we are faced with a brute contingency that cannot be rationally explained, I worry that Meillassoux's mathematical romance seduces itself into offering the kind of "theory of everything" that Hume's scepticism perhaps rightly prohibits.



There is something absolutely exhilarating about Meillassoux's argument, and it is not difficult to see why his book has already aroused so much interest.    The exposition and critique of correlationism is brilliant and Meillassoux is at his best when showing the philosophical complacency of contemporary Kantians and phenomenologists.   The proposal of speculative realism is audacious and bracing, particularly when he defends the idea of nature as a "glacial universe", cold and indifferent to humans.   Such is Pascal's "Eternal silence of infinite spaces", but without the consolation of a wager on God's existence.   However, by Meillassoux's own admission, his proposal is incomplete and we await its elaboration in future books.    Although, his style of presentation can turn into a sort of fine-grained logic-chopping worthy of Duns Scotus, the rigour, clarity and passion of the argument can be breathtaking.



I'd like to make three criticisms of Meillassoux's book.   My first worry concerns a peculiar masochistic fantasy not uncommon to philosophers.   Meillassoux writes, in the conclusion,  "Philosophy's task consists in re-absolutizing the scope of mathematics . . .".    But if his project of the mathematization of nature is right, then what role is left for philosophy ?     It would seem that philosophy is not just Locke's underlabourer to science, but a handmaiden to mathematics.   That is, once the obfuscations and errors of correlationism have been philosophically refuted, once we accept that the world as it is in itself is the same as the world for us, once we grant to mathematics the task of providing a correct ontology of nature, then philosophy becomes totally useless.    The task of an ontology of nature passes to scientists and mathematicians and the philosopher, having written his suicide note, quietly slits his wrists and reclines in a warm bath.



Secondly, for Meillassoux, the model for science is always physics, as physical laws undoubtedly describe a world that existed prior to any observers of those laws.   The entire problem of ancestrality in Meillassoux's critique of correlationism is conceived of in relation to physics and physical reality.   But the same is not true of sciences like biology, psychology and economics.  Such sciences also propose laws, but they obviously only appeared with and are dependent upon observers.   So, what about those sciences ?    How would we draw the line between primary and secondary qualities in such cases ?



Lastly, what about secondary qualities ?    If we accept the need for a distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and also accept the critique of correlationism as confining us to the latter without access to the former, then what happens, if anything, to those secondary qualities ?   Is the thought that once we have access to an absolute conception of the world, then the messier, subjective life of secondary qualities will disappear or drop away ?    If so, then how ?    Furthermore, the question of primary and secondary qualities contains within it a very tricky problem of the relation between the absolute and the relative.  If mathematical physics grants us access to a world as it is in itself regardless of how that world appears to us, and given that it is undeniably the case that different societies and historical periods see the world in very different ways and are therefore relative to one another,  then is such relativity simply meant to evaporate when we see truly into absolute reality ?   Is the thought that we should somehow live ethically in relation to the realm of primary qualities, like philosopher kings ?    Or is it that, like Bernard Williams, we need to accept the absoluteness of primary qualities and the relativity of secondary qualities and thereby make a distinction between the activity of science and ethical life ?



The irony of the philosophical situation , evoked by After Finitude is palpable.   Just when a certain strand of Anglo-American philosophy (think of John McDowell or Robert  Brandom) is making domestic the insights of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and even allowing philosophers to flirt with forms of idealism, the latest development in Continental philosophy is seeking to return to a Cartesian realism that was believed to be dead and buried.    Thereby hangs a funny story.  A. J. Ayer met that most excessive of Continental thinkers, Georges Bataille, in a Parisian bar in 1951.   Apparently, Merleau-Ponty was also in attendance and the conversation lasted until three in the morning.   The thesis under discussion was very simple :  did the sun exist before the appearance of humans ?   Ayer saw no reason to doubt that it did, whereas Bataille thought the whole proposition meaningless.   For a philosopher committed to scientific realism, like Ayer, it makes evident sense to utter ancestral statement such as  "The sun existed prior to the appearance of humans", whereas, for a correlationist like Bataille, more versed in Hegel and phenomenology, physical objects must be perceived by an observer in order to be said to exist.   Bataille concludes, "Yesterday's conversation produced an effect of shock.   There exists between French and English philosophers a sort of abyss".   The virtue of Meillassoux's book is that this abyss might be elsewhere than we previously thought.   We should watch where we place our feet.



 Simon Critchley

     Prof. Philosophy New School of Social Research, New York
     e-mail < CritchlS (at) newschool.edu >

Quentin Meillassoux

     École Normale Supérieure, Paris