Notes from ‘After Finitude’ by Quentin Meillassoux

9780826496744_THUMBThis is not a review as there are many reviews all over the net about this book. These are only my notes which constitute a (very) basic overview of the books arguments. If you read philosophy, reading this book gives a clear idea of the task that lies ahead for speculative metaphysics. If you do not have time to read the book then I hope these notes are clear enough to give you a solid enough background to the text as to be useful and thought provoking.

QM starts by reminding us of primary and secondary qualities. Primary are those qualities of an object which exist without me (thing without me). Secondary qualities are an object’s sensible relations (thing with me). Primary qualities are mathematical measurements which equate to the object in-itself. Thus the understanding of primary and secondary qualities was changed by Kant from ‘what is the proper substrate?’ to ‘what is the proper correlation?’. The effect of this we have seen the the 20th century, where the media of correlation has been language (analytic philosophy) and consciousness (phenomenology). The problem, as QM sees it, is that “contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers” (p. 7). This is evident in such thinkers as Heidegger, where the priority is given to the relation of being to man via Eriegnis.

To challenge this view, QM comes up with a term he hopes to make corelationism squirm: the terms ‘ancestral’, which is any reality anterior to any life on earth, and the ‘archi-fossil’, which is material which indicates any ancestral history (p.8, 10). This creates a challenge to correlationism and science (which is ancestral discourse) to understand the meaning of ancestral statements. This will prove difficult for the scientific principle of the ‘falsifiability thesis’ as advocated by Popper, that states that all scientific theories are falsifiable.

For philosophy, making claims about the nature of the cosmos have changed considerably. QM looks at Descartes claim that mathematical properties exist in themselves, where as Kant claims that mathematical properties exist only for us. What then is the truth of a scientific statement? Truth of ancestral scientific statements comes from its inter-subjective verifiability, not the naïve notion of a world without the givenness of the world via a retrojection of the past on the basis of the present (p.16). The archi-fossil and the correlation are incompatible and disqualify each other. Where does that leave us? Ancestral statements are illusory via a priori demonstration and thus opens up the possibility of ‘Young Earth’ theories. There is a test of faith inherent in both claims: if you acknowledge the correlationist claim, then any ancestral claim has to be taken on faith if it is to be believed. And the religious arguments concerning the creation of the earth are still valid based upon their claim to the truth of the a priori correlation.

In clarification, the archi-fossil is in no way similar to an ancient event. An ancient event indicates an occurrence within a linear history. The archi-fossil designates an event anterior to terrestrial life and hence anterior to givenness itself (p.20). Archi-fossils are anterior to time, not just un-witnessed in time. QM then proceeds to ask the question ‘how to conceive of a time in which the given as such passes from non-being to being?’ (p.21). Time before being to time with being and thus being with thought. The task is to think a time of being without thought.

‘The transcendental subject simply cannot be said to exist, which is to say that the subject is not an entity but rather a set of conditions rendering objective scientific knowledge of entities possible’ (p.23). Speculative idealism posits subject as its bodily individuation not apart from it (like transcendental idealism does). Thus, for the moderns, to be is to be a correlate. Yet science continues to ask us to discover the source of its own absoluteness (p.28). The question of necessity and contingency of the absolute now arises. For Descartes, the proof of the absolute is its necessity for us, not in itself (p.30). For Kant, the thing in-itself is thinkable but unknowable, such that we can think the a priori condition, but not categorical cognition to the thing in-itself: there is a real necessity for the absolute, such is the position of Kant’s dogmatic metaphysics (p.31).

The principle of reason rests on God being necessary in-itself, thus supporting a reasonable deduction built upon this ground. This absolutism legitimates political ideologies as correlate necessities: thus we must not return to the ‘principle of reason’.

QM advocates speculative thinking which has claims to the absolute which doesn’t rely on the principle of reason to necessitate its claims, while metaphysical thinking only claims access to the absolute through metaphysical thinking. Thus with Heidegger and Wittgenstein we have an end to the possibility of the principle of reason legitimating claims to know the absolute. This ‘strong correlationism’ proposes we cannot think let alone know the absolute thing in-itself. There is thus a nihilistic nothingness beyond the human.

Even after successfully critiquing meta-physico religiosity, this does not disprove God but only a type of God which appeals to natural reason to declare the superiority of its own beliefs. To remove proof of the ‘supreme’ supported by reason reverses the process of the destruction of polytheistic religion suffered at the hands of monotheistic religious reason (p.45). What does this produce? Fundamentalist fideism: a defence of religiosity in general which promotes the superiority of piety over thought, thus removing reason from any ground to a belief in God or gods. The result is a religionizing of reason: beliefs are legitimate as nothing but beliefs, not as reasonable beliefs (p.47). Philosophical works such as by Levinas pursue a sceptico-fideist closure of metaphysics dominated by the ‘wholly-other’ (p.48). Fideism is merely another name for strong correlationism. The correlationist cogito can thus be non-representational and institutes a species solipsism (rather than individual solipsism – Heidegger’s being-in-the-world could be a species solipsist claim).

QM wants to challenge modern philosophy’s appropriation of facticty as limit to revealing knowledge of the absolute. Facticity tells us about the nature of the absolute. If all we can know is the contingency of facticty, then there is no reason for things to remain so rather than otherwise. Yet saying ‘everything is equally possible’ is an absolute claim, thus metaphysical. The only claim that can be made is based upon our facticity, not as limit but as absolute: the absolute is the absolute impossibility of a necessary being (p.60). This is the absolute truth of the principle of unreason: this is an anhypothetical principle, which is a proposition that could bot be deduced from another proposition, but could be proved by argument.

QM then looks at the relation of time and fixed universal laws. A time which promotes fixed universal laws is banal. The time QM premises is the time of lawless destruction of every physical law: it is the absolute necessity of everything’s non-necessity (contingency). This is non-banal (p.63). QM points out that we cannot take contingency empirically (as precariousness, of a perishability that is bound to occur). Only absolute contingency as pure possibility should apply here: this is that which may never be realized). However, to say that ‘everything must necessarily perish’ is a metaphysical statement that posits the absolute, where a determinate situation is necessary. This lawless time is not Heraclitian time of becoming, as this is an eternal law. Destructive time is the eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law (p.64). ‘It is a time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis and death’ (p.64). Philosophies of sensible becoming hide a stabilist structure as their ground, this is an illusion.

‘For even if I cannot think the unthinkable, I can think the possibility of the unthinkable by dint of the unreason of the real’ (p.58). QM then undertakes an imaginary dialogue between correlationist, idealist and speculative philosophers, which recaps each position examined so far and how the each respond to each other claims. QM them states that necessarily, anything is possible except a necessary entity. Thus, we can start to determine the absolute properties of chaos (p.66). ‘It is because the entity cannot be necessary and not because the entity must be logically consistent, that we infer the impossibility of contradiction: the absolute cannot be necessary and contingent (p.68). If the principle of reason is absolutely false (proven by the principle of unreason), then the principle of non-contradiction is absolutely true. This is because strong correlationism de-absolutized the principle of non-contradiction and reason. (p.71).

For Fideist, being is an unreasonable pure gift, which wonders at why there is something rather than nothing, sprung from the miraculous coming of sometime from nothing (p.72). Thus we must take a strong interpretation of the principle of unreason: things must be contingent and there must be contingent things. This is because facticity is not just a fact in the world (it is not a fact that things are factual), it is an absolute necessity that factual things exist. Kant understood the thing in-itself to not be knowable because of facticity (but it is thinkable). The speculative approach says that the thing in-itself is nothing other than the facticity of the transcendental form of representation. Thus there is a logos of contingency, which states that contradiction is logically conceivable providing not every contradiction is true. Thus an inconsistent being is impossible because it would be necessary if it existed (p.78). But even so, there can only ever be contradictions in statements and not with the real world. Contradictions can be ontic but not ontological.

QM then creates the term ‘factiality’ which stands for the speculative essence of facticity such as the facticity of everything cannot be thought as a fact (p.79). The principle of unreason is then changed from a negative statement to a positive one: the principle of factiality. For factiality, contingency alone is necessary (not contingency is necessary, which would be a metaphysical statement, as the necessity of contingency is not derived from contingency alone, but from a whole that is ontologically superior to the later) (p.80).

As stated earlier, Popper promotes the falsifiability principle to scientific laws and facts, but he never advocated that the universal laws themselves could change, only the theories which can become infinitely refined. For Popper there is a necessary stability to absolute laws. For Kant, causal necessity is a necessary condition for the existence of consciousness and the world it experiences. For Hume, there is no causal necessity, only habitual projection of stable phenomena (p.87). For Leibniz, God is unconditionally necessary, his essence alone guarantees the best of all possible worlds. Thus the world must remain the same in its consistency. However, Hume never doubts causal necessity, only our capacity to reason for it (p.90). He says that we cannot know the reason for the ultimate necessity of universal laws but there are universal laws (Hume is a sceptic of human reason, not sceptical of natural laws).

For Kant, ‘there is no consciousness without the possibility of a science of phenomena, because the very idea of consciousness presupposes the idea of representation that is unified in time’ (p.93). The necessity of laws is a incontrovertible fact once one has construed it as the very condition for consciousness’. Stability, rather than the necessity of phenomena can be defended. Thus stability does not generate necessity. The response to this is that if laws of nature were contingent we would have noticed. This is not the case. Whatever is equally thinkable is equally possible. ‘If physical laws were actually contingent it would be contrary to the laws that govern chance. There must be a necessitating reason, albeit hidden’: No. Saying that it is chance through innumerable dice throws that we get what looks like a stable universe pre-supposes the necessity of stable conditions for the dice throws themselves from one to the next. (p.99). Chance is an undeterministic physical law and thus must be eliminated from contingency (Epicurus’ Clinamen are indeterminate within determinate conditions).

The contingency of natural laws remains inaccessible to aleatory reasoning (p.100). Therefore, we must try and articulate a principle of contingency that is district from the concept of chance. The only way to do this is through the use of Cantor’s set theoretical notion of the ‘transfinite’: “the (qualifiable) totality of the thinkable is unthinkable.” (p.104).The totalization of the thinkable can no longer be guaranteed a priori – the conceivable is not necessarily totalizable by the detotalization of number. Badiou reveals the mathematical conceivability of the detotalization of being qua being, thus using mathematics to escape from calculative reason. Thus, aleatory reasoning is only extendible to the objects of experience not to the laws that govern the universe, because a totality must be posited which can govern the conditions of chance, such as a dice. Since Cantor, we cannot claim to any logical or mathematical necessity, thus any a priori necessity (p107). Being and chance foreground a dice’s totality as a calculative enclosure of the number of the possible (p.108).

The contingent, is thus, something that finally happens. Events which are incalculable and unpredictable continue to be mathematical over the artistic, poetic or religious (p.108). Wittgenstein was interested in finding out how it is possible (and how it is still possible that you, the questioner being proof of it) to be perplexed by such ‘pseudo-problems’ of metaphysics. Contemptuous belief in the insolvability of metaphysical questions is merely the consequence of the continuing belief in the principle of reason.

The factical stance abandons the dissolvent approach to metaphysics as a procedure that has itself become obsolete (p.109). It is not that there is no longer a problem, it is that there is no longer a reason. If the absolute is contingent it is because of our facticity that we must note the super immensity of the chaotic virtual that allows the imperceivable stability of the visual world (p.111). Thus statements about the world which are ancestral (dia-chronic), how are these meaningful regardless of their inter-subjective testable correctness? Dia-chronic statements express the very essence of modern science, These can be integrated into knowledge as opposed to myth. Science’s dia-chronic statements assume that the question of the witness has become irrelevant to knowledge of the event (p.116). Thus what is mathematizable cannot be reduced to a correlate of thought (p.117).

Kant’s Copernican revolution was based on his discovery that knowledge doesn’t conform to objects: objects conform to knowledge. Since 1781 (year of Kant’s 1st critique) philosophical Ptolemaism (the earth is the fixed centre of the universe around which the sun and the other planets revolve) harbours the deeper meaning of scientific Copernicanism. Scientific realism is thus ‘naïve’ or ‘natural’, a derivative of the primordial relation to the world that falls to the philosopher to uncover (p.119). For Kant, the man of science becomes the ‘piston of knowledge’ rather than the metaphysician. Science alone gives theoretical knowledge of nature, speculative metaphysics can no longer reason its knowledge of higher reality (cosmos, God, or souls). With this, philosophy lost sight of science’s revolutionary aspect to thought: speculation. Philosophy continues to narrow the correlation to being-in-the-world (facticity) or epochal Being, or a linguistic community: this is so the philosopher can be master of his brand of knowledge (p.121).

The de-absolutizing implications of renouncing the absolute and metaphysics are threefold: Descartes ratifies the idea that nature is devoid of thought (life = thought). Thought can think de-subjectivized nature through mathematics. This destroys a priori knowledge (metaphysics) of physics. Hume demonstrated the fallaciousness of all metaphysical forms of rationality. Which led Kant to turn correlational knowledge into only philosophically legitimate forms of knowledge. After this philosophy’s task consists in re-absolutizing the scope of mathematics – thereby remaining, contrary to correlationism, faithful to thought’s Copernican de-centring – bit without lapsing back into any sort of metaphysical necessity which has indeed become obsolete (p.126). This leads QM to two types of absolutizing: ontical: possible entities can be thought indifferent to thought, and ontological: the Cantorian non-all accounts for the structure of the possible as such (the possible as such is necessarily un-totalizable). QM ends his thesis by stating: ‘If Hume’s problem woke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, we can only hope that the problem of ancestrality succeeds in waking us from our correlationist slumber, by enjoining us to reconcile thought and absolute’ (p.128).


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