August 29th, 2012

S.C. Hickman

Meillassoux and Neo-Materialism

Graham Harman has new blog post on Quentin Meillassoux's recent Berlin lecture (!warning: pdf download: here). In it he again reiterates his own form of neo-materialism as compared to other forms of contemporary Continental Philosophy.

In Meillassoux's Berlin lecture he returns us to his formative early work After Finitude, marking a turn toward materialism and its reactivation in contemporary philosophy, turning toward an redoubling his stance on thought and its capabilities, its ability to attain the 'absolute' - even going so far as to engender something like 'eternal truths'. His original project was a thought experiment, a way of modeling an argument that would produce the most stringent form of anti-absolutism possible. The model centered on his use of the term 'correlationsism', and he reduced it down to two arguments: 1) the correlational circle, and 2) correlational facticity. From Berkeley on metaphysical materialism has been seen to fall into a trap concerning its access to reality, since supposedly we can never apprehend reality outside our access to it which is the circular loop of Being for-us of the correlational circle of the given. As he tells it correlationism posits that contrary to all materialism's "thought cannot escape from itself", it cannot access a world independent of thought itself. Our access to the world is bound to our thinking the given.

For all correlational philosophies since Kant there is no escape from thought, and any pretense to think what is is doomed from the beginning for all materialisms that would try to think the given outside thought, since even that is a vicious circle that is thought itself in thinking the given as if it were outside the very thought that is thinking it: an impossible project. Yet, as he tells us correlationism cannot stop there, for there are non-materialist forms of absolutism in which correlation itself is the absolute. Philosophy after Kant can be divided into two camps. The first camp would be formed of the Party of Correlationism for whom the closure of thought upon itself forfeits forever any access to the absolute outside, or what Meillassoux once termed the Great Outdoors. The second camp is inhabited by the Party of Speculation or materialist stance for whom the absolute reality outside of thought is both accessible and devoid of subjectivity.  Yet, along with the materialist stance he sees also a third non-materialist group for whom the radical affirmation of the correlational circle is seen not as a "symptom of its finitude, but as a consequence of its ontological necessity." He explicates this third form, saying, if "thought cannot exit from itself, this is not because it runs up against gnoseological limits, but because it discovers a form of existence that is intrinsically necessary: the subjective."

The Era of Correlation which encompasses all of philosophy from the time of Berkeley till now he divides into a further terminological prison as correlationism - skepticism, the transcendental, phenomenology or posmodernism - in which thought is denied access to the absolute; and, a new term, subjectalism, which he "consists in absolutizing thought... as to maintain a post-Berkeleyan anti-materialism without renouncing the speculative status of philosophy." With the camp of subjectalists he places all philosophical speculations of both the idealist and vitalist traditions because of their "original anti-materialist complicity." He begins a critique of the subjectalist stance in philosophy charting its divesting the subject through desubjectivication, as well as its de-anthropologization of nature. Instead in the subjectalist stance he sees a spreading out of subjectivity throught nature, a flattening of the subject into all corners of the universe. He sees this not as a decentering of the human from philosophy, but as a recentering of the human within every nook and cranny, every organic and inorganic substance of nature or imagination. For him 'subjectalism" shapes all currents of thought from Berkeley, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Deleuze onward in which the central arguments for abolishing the idea of de-subjectivized matter. He defines subjectalism as "every metaphysics that absolutizes the correlation of being and thought, whatever sense it attaches to the subjective and objective poles of such a relation." The only difference he sees in subjectalism, with its roots in the Berkeleyan tradition is between two forms of realism: a realism of the Idea, and a realism of the Object - both, according to him, forms of a non-materialist philosophy.

Against both the correlationist and subjectalist stances in philosophy Mellassoux comes forward with his position and project, a neo-materialist project. One that asks the question: how can we escape from both correlationism and subjectalism - from all of their historical variants, and even all conceivable variants?

The crux of his argument hinges of on what I will term the Great Escape: the escape from the 'era of Correlation'. He begins by distancing himself from both correlationists and subjectalists. I will not go into his critques of the subjectalist stance he imposes on fellow speculative realists Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman. Only to add that for him his fellow laborers within the speculative realist camp have not escaped the correlational circle, that they have only radicalized it either through an idealist appeal to access (Hamilton), or by hypostatsizing or universalizing access to the things themselves (Harman).  Meilllassoux now offers his alternative saying that only the materialist can escape this 'era of Correlationism', for "he makes of this human access to things something that belongs only to the human-thing relation, and absolutely does not exist in things, a fortiori between things." He spends the rest of the lecture filling out the details...

The key term becomes the principle of factiality - the "speculative statement according to which facticity alone is non-factual - or ... according to which only contingency is necessary. Such is the principle - that of the necessity of contingency alone - that governs the idea of speculation that I call 'factial'." From this he puts forward two thesis: 1) that all determinate reality can be other than it is - contingent; and, 2) that contingency implies non-trivial and necessary properties, which he calls Figures. His project therefore "consists ... in deriving from the principle of factiality various Figures qua absolute invariants of the maximal variance accorded to every entity." But what exactly does this mean? He tries to clarify his position stating that he affirms the radical contingency of our world and it is this radical contingency that is what is confronted in the pursuit of an absolute exteriority to all thought. Because of this he prohibits himself "from speaking of that which is, not to mention that which could be."  The crux of this is not that everything is contingent, what is important for the speculative neo-materialist is to speculate on what is necessary. He puts it this way saying that speculation "must speak only of those Figures ... that belong precisely to a contingency delievered of all constraints other than ... that of its own eternity."

What he seeks is to return us to a form of empiricism, and in fact sees this as an "absolute necessity" for any neo-materialism. His only disagrement with the empirical tradition is that they did not go far enough, that they are 'absolutely' correct, in that if "you want to know or to think what is, you must necessarily ... do so by way of a certain regime of experience: scientific experimentation, historical and sociological experience, but also literary and artistic experience..." This new empiricism is against the older forms that supported a metaphysics based upon the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Instead his neo-materialist empiricism which opposes the Principle of Sufficient Reason, it is non dogmatic, and non intrusive into what exists, it does not presume to tell us what the basic elements of the world are, nor does it try to prove in general terms the validity of the necessary. What it does do is defend the "exclusive right of experience to describe the inexhaustible intricacies of the real that make up our world."  

For the neo-materialist there are only two principles we must obey: being is not thought, and thought can think being. The empirical world of matter can exist without thought, or subjectivity, and it can be described "wholly by a mathematized physics - a physics that accords no subjective quality to the inorganic, and has no need to believe that matter always implies some kind of subjective existence. To be, entails nothing of being - not even an infinitesimal sensation of 'self'." One can never again have reasons for what is. There may be legitimate contingent reasons for what is, in fact science itself utilizes what he terms as factiality to explain the emprical data of everyday life. But the idea of an absolute reason for what is given is unfounded and must be expunged from any materialist or scientific approach.

He tries to sneak the subjectalist approach in again through a contingent rather than absolutist speculative program, telling us that it is perfectly acceptable to subjectivize the world not as a metaphysician but as a 'hyperphysicist'. A hyperphysicist is conscious of the contingent nature of the subjectivity of the world being investigated. This new hyperphysics is a theory that goes beyond science in its exploration of reality positing non-scientific or possible theories of what factually is. This speculative hyperphysicist speaks not of the absolute Being of being (ie., "of its facticity, of the contingent fact that a being is this and not that"), instead he speaks only of that which contingently is. The hyperphysicist is forever bound to the hypothetical and contingent, and "ultimately heuristic" forms of speculation that can never again have any foundation in necessity for "it touches upon nothing eternal within beings." It's almost as if Meillassoux is  the speculative realists who prefer either an idealist or object-oriented approach that it is perfectly alright for them to investigate possible contingent worlds, as long as they don't take themselves too seriously and try to confound their theories with either science or some absolute truth about reality. As if he were saying: go on, speculate, create your speculative systems and hypothetical models; just don't try to impose them on science as truth.

Meillassoux cedes that he has no need for a hyperphysics of his own, that his philsosophy even cedes that there are non-philosophical theories and discourses upon which he relies (ie., science and the empirical traditions). These other non-philosophical theories and discourses from physics to biology, ethology, sociology, history, literature, etc., all provide tacit windows on reality. Against the older metaphysical materialisms, founded as they are on a monisitc vision of matter and reality, he proposes that what we need is to realize that dualisms exist and are everywhere. As he says "we need dualisms everywhere - pure differences, between numerous regimes of the real - matter, life, mind, society, etc. - whose possible co-ordination does not at all allow us to think their reconciliation, unless in the brute mode of blind facts."

One point that Meillassoux emphasized is that what he does is not metaphysics, that what he does is speculation; or, as he states it - "I am a resolute anti-metaphysician precisely in so far as I speculate the absolute." Such is the peculiar measure of his project that its main thrust is as a non-metaphysical speculation, contingent and 'eternalizing', in that it is not linked to what is given, or to what may perish tomorrow without rhyme or reason. It is through this ascesis that he rescues the "richness, all the richness, of what exists, for non-philosophers alone." 

‘Ontology is prosaic,’ writes Meillassoux (98). The fundamental question of metaphysics: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, and its working question: ‘Why are things this way and not otherwise?’, have to be answered and not left aside, and the answer has to be disappointingly prosaic. To the question of why the world is like it is and not any different, Meillassoux’s speculation is designed to answer: for nothing; for no reason at all. As he once stated in After Finitude:

"Scrutiny of the principle of no reason and of the conditions - which are not anything - that are attached to it shouldn’t feel threatened by criticism. On the contrary, it needs to multiply criticism in order to strengthen the binding texture of its argumentative fabric. It is to the extent that we find weaknesses in our reasoning and scrutinize our insufficiencies that the very idea of a discourse about the absolute, which is neither metaphysical nor religious, shall gradually emerge. Indeed, it is through the progressive discovery of a number of unusual problems, and of their appropriate answers, that we will be able to create and maintain a logos of contingency, or in another words, a reason that has been freed from the principle of reason - a speculative ratio that is no longer a metaphysical reason (104)."

Yet, is the necessary contingency of all things as propounded by Meilllassoux prosaic? Is it not more akin to looking into the petrifying eyes of the Gorgon, a gaze so brilliant that it allures even as it feigns to destroy, a gaze that breaks the circle of what is given from the thing-in-itself offering instead the realization that as Meillassoux states it:

‘Looking through the crack we have opened in the correlational circle onto the absolute, we find a threatening power, something muffled and quite capable of destroying all things and all worlds; capable of engendering monsters of illogicality; as well, capable of never actually carrying out its threats; capable of producing all dreams and, equally, all nightmares; capable of frenetic and chaotic changes, or alternatively, capable of producing a perfectly still universe’ (87).

It is the power of the absolute in the seas of absolute contingency. This is an absolute, remember, that we must think. This is what speculation is all about. We must speculate, by necessity of thought, and all things must be contingent. For " being is not thought, and thought can think being."


I will let the reader peruse the fascinating conclusion to Meillassoux's lecture for himself... (read here

I will add only that Graham contests his own and Iain Grant's placement within the 'subjectalist' camp telling us:

"It’s an important essay, though in my opinion one that is not moving in the right direction. Meillassoux introduces a new general term, “subjectalism,” by which he intends to put me and Iain Grant in the same box as idealism (both Hegel and Berkeley), insofar as we all “absolutize the subject.”

"However, this is simply an equivocal use of the term “absolutize.” Idealists “absolutize” the subject in the sense that they exclude all things-in-themselves beyond accessibility to the subject. Meillassoux claims here that a position such as mine also “absolutizes” the subject because I treat all objects as subjects." (read here)