Response to Quentin Meillassoux

A response to Meillassoux’s Presentation at Freie Universität Berlin

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I feel like we have come a long way since in 2007 Ray Brassier introduced me to Quentin’s work, and I translated and published ‘Potentiality and Virtuality’ in Collapse 2, the first of what were to be many translations I did of his work, continuing to this very day, since we are about to publish a translation of Quentin’s new book, which I will discuss a little in a moment. Collapse 2 was published under the title of ‘Speculative Realism’, two words that at the time meant nothing to almost everybody, and which I now often wish I had never heard! Quentin already said enough yesterday about the divergences between the projects of the four philosophers who have unfortunately been burdened with this brand, so I won’t dwell on it.

Quentin finished by acknowledging that the derivation he has outlined for us is only a first step and does not represent a decisive completion of his project. As such it would make no sense to assess whether it succeeds or not. What I would like to do is to stage my own recapitulation or reconstruction of Quentin’s project, and then make some observations regarding how some of the strikingly strange outcomes of the project reflect the way in which the problem was posed in the first place; and thus to bring to light certain decisions that underly the project as a whole, decisions that do not necessarily agree with my own conception of what a contemporary speculative project could be.

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First of all I would like to suggest a distinction between correlationism, and what I will call the problem of correlationism. That is, I suggest that, in principle and perhaps in fact, correlationism exists before there is a problem of correlationism that demands the philosopher’s attention.

The problem of correlationism is born of the disparate, apparently irreconcilable results of two chains of reasoning. One is correlationism itself, the apparent incapacity of reason to get beyond itself. And the other is the statements made by modern science about existences without manifestation. It is this disparity, of course, that is dramatised in After Finitude by the device of the Arche-Fossil.

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And what was always very striking about the argument of After Finitude was that it presented a sort of ultimatum—it made it impossible any longer to avoid the irreconciliability of these two positions. It brought out the implicit ontological claim of scientific statements, arguing that they made absolutely no sense unless they were understood as referring to the thinkability of non-correlated objects. Something with which the doxa of correlationism apparently could not be reconciled. The force of the arche-fossil was that the reader found himself forced into a decision: either abandon all the deliverances of science, or give up correlationism and begin once again the quest to rationally justify a thinking of the absolute.

You see what I am driving at with the distinction between correlationism and the problem of correlationism: it is conceivable that one could have continued to be a correlationist entirely untroubled; it is this forcing of a recognition and a decision that I call the advent of the problem of correlationism, or the problematization of correlationism. It is the apparent irreconciliability of two modes of access to the real—one that demands to be understood as irredeemably mediated, and one that, to be accepted as valid, must be understood as absolute.

In this way we could say that modern scientific knowledge is the occasional cause of the problem of correlationism. It is what brings its problematic nature to our attention in a way we can no longer ignore. This was the force of the opening chapter of After Finitude.

In demonstrating that scientific statements about the arche-fossil must be understood as pertaining to an absolute, Quentin showed us this disparity—he asked us how we could bridge the gap between a knowledge caught in the circle of correlation, and a knowledge that apparently leapt beyond it. And he alerted us to a certain enigma within scientific knowledge: given that correlationism seemed to be uncircumventable, how could we account for this type of knowledge? Would we have to simply renounce it, or would we have to betray its inherent ontological claim by forcing it into a correlationist account?

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Of course, what happened next in After Finitude confounded our expectations—because Quentin showed that in fact correlationism itself contained a concealed absolute, namely the facticity of the correlation itself.

But what is interesting is that this does not so much bridge the gap as displace it, transforming the structure of the problem. For now, we have factiality providing us with a minimal absolute with maximum range: it tells us absolutely that everything is necessarily contingent. And we have scientific statements with their specific propositions on absolute existences. Now the gap is between the absolutely wide net thrown by factial speculation, and the realm of the scientific statement. The realm of reason has been re-unified, but there is now a gap, a disparity or a blind spot within it.

Now the problem becomes to seek the real unification of these two. To discover the point at which scientific thought anchors itself into this maximally broad realm of the factial. We were of the opinion already that mathematical science somehow accedes to the absolute, but we could not reconcile this with the implacable logic of correlationism. Now we know that the correlation itself is anchored also in the absolute, and we know how it is so anchored, the task is that of a derivation: How is mathematics grounded on facticity; on the same ground as correlation? To make mathematics pass through the same singular point of absolute knowledge that grounds correlation.

The task is still the same—to reconcile the implacable logic of correlationism with the apparent absolutizing capacity of scientific thought. But the gap to be bridged has been transformed by the discovery of the single point of support that is the principle of factiality. Could it be that, when we ‘do science’, we are supported, without knowing it, on this same point of absoluteness?

Of course, the bridging of this new gap is the job of what Quentin calls the figures of factiality, one of which he has explained to us today. As we have seen, it is the empty sign that appears to potentially allow the closure of this gap between the generic net of primo-factiality and the local deutero-facts that are somehow grasped within it.

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Now, perhaps I read Quentin’s paper while still under the influence of his new book, The Number and the Siren, which I spent the early part of the year translating. In any case, I couldn’t help but find myself making connections between the two.

In The Number and the Siren Quentin speaks of a parallel transformation: the transformation of the aporia of literary modernity—the realisation that it is chance alone that governs all things—into a positive programme. He asks what kind of acts, what kind of works could make up such a positive programme, escaping from the nostalgia and tragedy of the ‘shipwreck’. The question becomes that of the type of rites or practices that may go along with the understanding of divine inexistence, of absolute contingency as the divine (or non-divine, if you prefer). One such he finds in Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés.

I won’t spoil the fun for anyone, but essentially the argument of the book is that, in Mallarmé’s poem, through a very particular device embedded within it, the divine inexistence, as it were, comes among us. Quentin draws here on Mallarmé’s desire for some kind of collective ceremonial that would replace the Catholic Mass, as a collective experience of the divine; but this time, of the divine qua pure hazard, absolute contingency. The upshot is that Mallarmé—not Mallarmé the man, but Mallarmé qua figure of the author of this enigmatic, undecidable poem, which has a performative dimension, becomes the Christ in relation to absolute contingency as divine inexistence.

And it occurred to me that it is in terms of this structure, of the divine inexistence and its christic visitation of the world, the diffusion among us of the divine principle, that we can understand what we called the occasional cause of the problem of correlationism—namely, the arche-fossil. It does indeed seem that—if Quentin is right, if scientific statements are ultimately founded on the principle of factiality—then the arche-fossil, or the scientific thought of the non-correlated object, is the point at which the absolute touches our world, diffuses itself among us, makes us capable of an extraordinary communication with the beyond, without our knowing quite how this miracle took place. (For this we need Quentin’s christology of the Figures).

Accordingly, yesterday when Quentin spoke about the way in which he separates his project of speculative materialism from that of any science of this world, and today when he made the distinction between the primo-absolutizing capacity of thought in acceding to the principle of factiality, and the deutero-absolutizing capacity of thought in identifying absolute facts in this world, the death and ressurrection of the scientist as he passes into the realm of death and returns to deliver his truths, I thought of the primo- father and the deutero-son….

When Quentin announces that, qua speculative materialist, he is not interested in what is, in what is in this particular world, I could not help but think of John 18:36: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. And when, with apparent magnanimity, he grants unconstrained ‘freedom’ to all non-speculative disciplines, allowing that the speculative materialist doesn’t interfere with ‘what is’, so that these disciplines are free to go about their business, at the same time (although he will deny it) giving them a somewhat inconsequential status in relation to philosophy… I cannot help but paraphrase Mark 12:17: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to the divine inexistence the things that are the divine inexistence’s’!

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And I find something really troubling in this noli me tangere attitude on the part of the philosopher. It seems to me that it may deprive us of some of the radical challenge that modern science proposes to philosophy. That is, it seems to me that the provocation of the arche-fossil holds something more for us than this miraculous visitation.

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Let’s go back to the first point. In what way does the use Quentin makes of the provocative power of the arche-fossil fall short of its true potential?

As we have said, the arche-fossil produces the problem of correlationism; it forces us into the recognition that correlationism as doxa cannot co-exist with scientific statements: either scientific statements must be freighted with a ‘correlationist coefficient’—which essentially deprives them of their inherent singular ontological claim (this is, as I understand it, the outcome of an analysis such as Latour’s and Harman’s); or, correlationism itself must be transformed, its apparent relativism made to yield an absolute that can be reconciled with the absolute of the scientific statement (this is Quentin’s speculative solution).

Now, one aspect of modern science as occasioning cause for the problem of correlation does indeed consist in its capacity to tell us something about a reality that is indifferent to our thinking it, and to our existence.

But at the same time I believe we should acknowledge that there is another provocation that is contained within modern science: for it also reveals the contingency of thought itself. That is, it reveals how thought itself is a natural product that appears at a certain point in time, or over a certain timescale.

In fact, this is arguably its primary effect: before we are able to use mathematics to carbon date geological strata and give them an absolute (if revisable) status, we are faced with the dilemmas of deep time, of the contingency of the earth, and thus the natural provenance of thought, which the romantic generation struggled with. And I must say, perhaps along with Iain Hamilton Grant, my vision of Speculative Realism is more tinged by this romanticist speculative science than with an attempt to bring back a Cartesian vision of science. I don’t believe we can erase this important stage in the philosophical vision of science.

And this other aspect of the impact of modern science is linked to what Freud called the humiliations of man.

Freud remarked that modern man had undergone three deep ‘narcissistic wounds’: Copernicus had demonstrated that the Earth is not the centre of the universe; Darwin, that the human being is a product of natural selection, emerging through the same blind material processes as every other creature; Finally, psychoanalysis was to undermine our impression that we are master of our own consciousness and destiny, for unconscious processes beyond our perception and control steer our relation to the world and to ourselves.

These are ‘humiliations’ in the sense that they violate the spontaneous human attitude, the ‘natural’ perspective from which the human subject can consider itself the central, necessary and founding fact of the universe in which it lives. (In other words, they also are a challenge to correlationism). The content of the entire series of these ‘narcissistic wounds’ is that the thinking subject’s self-image is not a transparent and originary given from which all thinking must proceed, and upon which all thinking can be solidly based. It is the product of other, unconscious processes and events: processes indifferent to the human and to thought; events crucial for the emergence and continued existence of the latter, but which are non-correlated and contingent.

Now, this sense of contingency—let’s say worldly contingency, as opposed to absolute contingency—is entirely excluded from Quentin’s philosophy. The important outcome of modern science, for him, it seems, rather than being a humiliation, is an exaltation of thought. Such worldly facts of contingency are not the business of the philosopher, for him (he renders them unto Caesar).

But I would like to point out a couple of things:

Firstly, even when scientific statements are expressed in meaningless signs, these signs only become a deutero-absolutizing statements when taken in the context of a great deal of non-mathematical context. And ultimately, they refer to facts that, themselves, are not mathematical.

True, general laws might be formulated in empty signs, but in order to actually refer to anything (thus, to be deutero-absolutizing, in Quentin’s sense) they also need signifiers, references to those things, which pass by way of natural language and by way of the empirical.

From this point of view, the distinction between deutero-absolutizable statements and ‘hyperphysical sciences’ is not necessarily so clear-cut. In short, I am not convinced that statements made purely of empty signs are capable of yielding the type of statements Quentin wants them to.

Secondly, it is not even clear that we can separate worldly contingency from absolute contingency through the criteria of mathematicization, because the humiliations Freud described are becoming increasingly mathematicized. Is there any less mathematics involved in an MRI brain scan than in the identification of a paleontological specimen or the charting of the spectrum of a star that died ten million years ago?

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So, let’s restate more precisely the twofold demand that modern science makes upon speculative philosophical thought. Not only is the latter required to account for the possibility of making absolute statements, also—and no less importantly—it is required to give an account of how a thought that is instantiated locally, that is to say within worldly contingency, comes to have the capacity to make such statements.

So, I would say, philosophy cannot leap to the absolute; it is required to make its way out, to set forth a continuous path, taking account of its local conditions on its way to the universal.

What is problematic here is that, if we do not take the care to conduct this careful continuity of thought, then we are liable to introduce gaps, unbridgeable gaps. We end up with a kind of shell, a carapace of universal thought, but one that contains vacuoles, or which contains areas that we cannot touch upon, sequestered from our universal account.

We need an account of the universal evolution from the global to the local, to complement an account of how the local instance of cognition or a particular instance of thought can access the global horizon of the universal. In other words, we need to ask: How can cognition approach nature or the real, how can a local instance of universal navigation—namely, knowledge—gain traction on the global horizon of the universal?

This is what i described, in Collapse 2, as being the ‘ouroborian’ task of SR. It is a circle, but it is a virtous circle, the only possible way to a universal knowledge.

The crux of this is as follows: Just because correlationism’s other is thinkable does not make it a special fact, a arche-fact as opposed to a fact. To think so implies a prejudicial privileging of thought, in fact a sort of secondary correlationism. To overvalue our own local starting point. If I can think the possible otherness, the contingency, of the correlation, what is important about this is not just the fact that I can think it, but what the contingency of the correlation means for my thought qua fact.

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A kind of schema of this dismissal of worldly contingency is found in Quentin’s argument against anthropic reasoning (in ‘Potentiality and Virtuality’).

Quentin argues that anthropic reasoning makes use of the same probabilising reasoning as Kant’s: that we are solicited to be astonished that the improbable conditions obtain to allow experience to be possible. Thus, Quentin argues, anthropism ultimately deduces a hidden finality from a highly-ordered reality.

But anthropism in its rigorous form is a determination of the local limits within which our thought of the universal can take place. It is a matter of taking account, within our thought, of the worldly (cosmic) contingencies under which that thought takes place. It is a mitigation of the contingency of thinking, which consists in acknowledging that the local nature of our thought imposes constraints upon its access to the absolute, but at the same time, also consists in researching the specific nature of those constraints and applying them as a coefficient of thought, so as to make possible an asymptotic approach to the absolute. And, in fact, this is the way in which all scientific thought works: it includes—implicity or explicitly—within its statements caveats, parameters, and conditions that render the statement universal and absolute by counteracting its particular and non-absolute conditions of enunciation. What Quentin denigrates as ‘astonishment’ is, for a rigorous anthropism, a precise datum.

In the same way, I argue that any thought that would accede to an absolute must also be a geo-philosophy, in that it must take into account the terrestrial nature of thought, not so as to relativise that thought, but so as to bring it nearer to universality by plotting a continuous path from its particularity to that universality.

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So for me, the question is always: How can we articulate the exalting fact that knowledge can (however potentially, revisably) access absolute knowledge, with the humiliating facts of worldly contingency?

This is not to re-relativise or re-correlate the capacity of rational thought. What the provocation of the arche-fossil challenges us to do is to uphold the absolutizing capacity and the autonomy of rationality, whilst at the same time reconciling it with the empirical facts about the emergence and eventual extinction of beings capable of exercising this capacity.

We must reinscribe these capacities within the reality that they grasp, because to do otherwise exposes us to new philosophical antinomies, brings back a deus ex machina in the form of the god of the gaps, even if this god is an inexistent one—as we see in Quentin’s advocacy of ‘dualisms everywhere’. We have to ask whether this is a price worth paying.

Let’s suppose that we are indeed able, by means of several Figures, to account for the possibility of the formulation of mathematical statements on the basis of the principle of factiality. Where would this get us? It would make thought’s access to reality fully accountable in terms of rationality itself, but at the cost of leaving this capacity for rationality itself as an exception to reality—and what’s more would introduce all of these other gaps that Quentin talked about yesterday.

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Now, let’s finally try to address this in terms of the empty sign, which Quentin used in his presentation. I would like to go back to Peirce’s philosophical project, which introduces the empty sign as a key figure. And I do so with caution, since I am no expert on Peirce.

For Peirce, the empty or free sign is not apprehendable immediately by the subject. The freeness of the free sign belongs to the twofold vector of Peirce’s project, which brings together what he calls tychism—which is very close to Quentin’s absolute contingency—and synechism, the postulate of universal continuity (all that is real is, insofar as it is real, continuous in some way or another).

In this way Peirce defines a coherent speculative project that allows for an understanding of the absolute and its regionalisation, its localisations.

Far from approaching directly the meaninglessness of sign and treating genericity as given in the sphere of the subject, Peirce’s aim is to allow for the subject to approach or navigate concept spaces conditioned by the free sign.

For Peirce, we need contingency and continuity. We can approach the idea of the meaningless sign only through concept spaces that are, to start with, anchored in the regional instantiation of meaning. In this way Peirce asks the question: How can a local subject embark upon the synthetic project of a universal reason?

We grant that the local instance can gain traction on the initial meaninglessness of the sign, but if you suppose it possible to approach the meaningless sign in its meaninglessness immediately, you come up with problems, the god of gaps, as we have discussed.

To understand the meaningless sign, or the blank sheet of assertion as Peirce calls it, it must be approached step by step, asymptotically, through its local instantiations. For this navigation, all sorts of tools (not just mathematics) are necessary. They are necessary to track the way in which regionalised instances of the universal fall into non-trivial forms of continuity with the universal. To follow the thread of the universal through the continuity of the worldly, not to imagine it as having divine visitation in the worldly.

The full modality of the meaningless sign, tychism or absolute contingency, is foreclosed to the subject. But since this contingency is coalesced with continuity, the meaningless sign is ramified into particular instances, in other words absolute contingency gives rise, thorough continuity, to a spectrum of worldly contingency through which it can be approached. This gives the possibility of a coherent epistemological project that operates, so to speak, on ‘both sides’ of the problem of the arche-fossil—humiliation and exaltation.

Peirce’s project is speculative in this sense: the final goal of thought is indeed to reconcile the locality of our mediate knowledge of entities with the universally identical contingency of every entity (the ‘blank sheet of assertion’). However one cannot do so by making one example of contingency (that of the correlation) absolute.

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To finish with, then, I will say the following:

The task is indeed to attain a thought of the absolute, through an apprehension of the contingency of beings. In effect, we have to learn to intuit in every entity its contingency, just as Quentin described. Galileo told us that ‘the book of nature’ is written in the language of mathematics. As Quentin suggests, we need to learn that, in fact, it is written in a meaningless language, it is written with the sole mark of contingency. The ascesis of speculative materialism would be to learn to apprehend the world as such. But does this mean that qua speculative materialists we have to renounce all interest in the multiple narratives, plots, adventures, objects that this book is full of? No, because the book does not consist solely of these marks alone. It is something like an illuminated manuscript with endless, ramified commentaries. These are the accretive structures of worldly contingency that relate, in each case, groups of meaningless signs to the totality of which they are a part. And this book is also our biography, and thus also an instruction manual on its own reading. Quentin presents us with only two options: To read the book as if it were a novel, so that through repetition each mark becomes pregnant with what we have already read, giving rise to a qualitative effect that is the product of our reading rather than of the meaningless marks (repetition); or, to read each mark as if it were divorced from the page, as if each mark came immediately and separately from an eternal beyond, like a christic visitation, like the stars of a Mallarméan constellation (iteration) allowing us to commune with the blank sheet upon which they are written. But there is another way to read, tracing paths by way of a continual pendular motion between the whole of the book grasped as absolute contingency, and the wordly compounding of local accretions of marks—like Peirce’s existential graphs. To approach the state of intuiting in every entity its eternal contingency by unfolding in every entity its worldly contingency (navigation).