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After Finitude

I put in my request at the library for Meillassoux’s book, After Finitude. I am puzzled by his critique of Kant: that Kant’s system can’t think “archefossils” or “the ancestral.” Anyone who has read Kant — or, maybe, the better secondary literature — knows that this is a strange thing to say. And likely irrelevant. I have some quick remarks about it, but they are only contingently held, as it were, since the book is not coming my way until some time next month, and the impressions I have are from other people’s understanding of the book.

Meillassoux’s central critique of Kant is that he is “correlationist”: Kant argues that thought is the necessary mediation between subjects and objects. We do not get at the things themselves. Unfortunately — and this is where things get odd — for Kant, Meillassoux claims, there have existed objects before thought. Since this is the case, how is it that we can know them? Since they were prior to thinking it does not seem, to Meillassoux, like they can be known through though.

One is tempted here to ask why not. From an individual standpoint, the overwhelming majority of the objects we use to interpret the sensible manifold are prior to our thought; yet that is still the only way to get at them. There doesn’t seem to be any material difference between thinking about my dead grandmother’s greatgrandmother and thinking about the moments just after the supposed big bang. In fact, the very notion of objectivation itself includes a posited subjectivity — not an empirical one, but a transcendental one. There is a difference; the fact that there were objects that existed, empirically, before people were there to think about them has no bearing on Kant’s system. So I am puzzled by Meillassoux’s argument: it seems so patently incorrect, yet he is widely read and celebrated by the young philosophes. Either I am missing something — or they are.

What’s more: it seems to me that Kant’s system has something to say to Meillassoux. But I need to wait till I read the book before I get into that.

Categories: Notes.

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18 Responses

  1. Yes, you’re missing something. It’s generally not a good idea to critique the arguments of a book you’ve not yet read.

  2. Give me guidance, Jack.

  3. Well, I’ve not read After Finitude yet either. But this sounds (to me) exactly right, as a critique of other speculative realist stuff I’ve glanced at. “There doesn’t seem to be any material difference between thinking about my dead grandmother’s greatgrandmother and thinking about the moments just after the supposed big bang.” Precisely. This sort of thinking-the-preconceptual stuff seems fine, to me, once it’s banalized - once it says stuff that’s just (commonsensically) true. But then it doesn’t have the metaphysical heft that the speculative realists seem to want. (Though I guess I should spend more time with the actual books and so on. * sigh *)

  4. Thanks Praxis. Meillassoux and the other speculative realists seem to turn on a specific conception of number that I don’t really understand: if it is mathematicizable it is real. This echoes Badiou’s bald assertion that “mathematics is ontology.” This means nothing to me, because as soon as you make this abstract claim you must return to the world in order to render it sensible, and once that is done you seem to be caught in a problem. But I am not up on the thinking on the ontology of number, it’s something I’m planning on looking into in tandem with Meillassoux.

  5. Meillassoux maintains that there IS a difference between your thinking of the big-bang and your greatgreatgreat grandmother: the correlationist, asserting “we that only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (AF5 ), cannot account for the arche-fossil (or a remnant of the big-bang) because of its status as an object that emerged anterior to givenness. Meillassoux in fact responds directly to your rejoinder: your claim (if I read it correctly) is that Meillassoux maintains that the “un-witnessed is un-thinkable”, while you retort that the world “always retains something non-given at the heart of its givenness” (AF 19); for Meillassoux, however, this rejoinder is invalid because the ancestral is, again, anterior to givenness, and therefore a distinct problem for the correlationist. Why is that a problem? Because if he is to uphold his commitment to the co-presence of thought and being, the correlationist must “carry out a retrojection of the past on the basis of the present”(AF 16) and effectively claim a more originary knowledge than science itself. If everything is ‘always-already’, how can we account for something that is, by all accounts, temporally prior to thought?

  6. Thanks Todd. I still am not sure what it would mean for something to appear “anterior to givenness” for Kant, as he approaches time as a “form of intuition,” which is construed transcendentally and not empirically. It is, for him, the condition of a beforehand itself; to discuss anterior or posterior events is already to hand the game to Kant. The claim isn’t that the “unwitnessed is unthinkable” it is that what we can claim to witness or know must come through the transcendental forms of sensibility. The empirical existence of a subject actually perceiving or thinking is irrelevant.

  7. Meillassoux’ thing with the archefossil is confessedly a bit of sophistry. What he suggests is that a Kantian would acknowledge what scientific evidence of “the ancestral” (pre human) universe says, but would have to reject the idea that the object really existed as science can describe it because of the absence of the preceiving subject. (This hinges implicitly on whether say “years” are objectively in existence since the big bang, long before the sun and earth, or not. Meillassoux thinks for some reason that they were and implies that “science” insists they were. And he notes a “correlationist” would hesitate on this and say, well, yes, evidence in the present tells us some things but the object, the archefossil, did not exist exactly as we describe it in the absence of a subject; our subjectivity is engaged in formation of this object we describe.) From this he says, correlationists reveal a contradiction within their position, that it must produce non-sense because they must hold a statement to be true but its referent illusory. And so all the correlationists are the same, from Kant to the most extreme solipsist, share this contradiction at the heart of their thinking, and so Kant cannot adequately rebut solipsism or creationism or all kinds of silliness. So he sort of says, well Kant is really okay, adequate, but inadequate to fend off all kinds of hyperscepticisms.

    But finally, Meillassoux is a gnostic actually, and he thinks intersubjectivity as a requirement for intellectual mastery of objects bothersome and compromising. His big thing, kind of poetic, reminiscent of turn of the century french poet’s preoccupations, is that people would never have thought even to divide the “for us” from the “in itself”, subjectivity and objectivity, had we not already been able to concieve our own mortality, to know our eventual non-being, to know it was possible for us to be other, to not exist. And he sees this as kind of an cause for wonder and reverence, among other consequences. It’s a quasi theological book, really, his argument from Cantor is cabalistic (very unlike Badiou with the math, Badious doesn’tthink the math can describe anything but thought, it’s not saying anything about beings, about matter/energy, only about “being” as a product of thought; Meillassoux does imply conclusions from math for cosmology, but only elective conclusions for philosophy, not binding conclusions), although its proceedings are in a style evocative of the French enlightenment. It’s really charming - I think - as literature, though not very convincing, but really different from these “speculative realists” he’s lumped with, who are just orful.

  8. Thanks Chabert. I went down to the great bourgie mall yesterday, drank an over-priced poorly-made cup of coffee and read the chapter on the ancestral while sitting in the aisles of a bigbox bookstore. I was surprised at how clearly Meillassoux writes; it’s rather refreshing, very different from a lot of the stuff I’ve been asked to read recently. He is very much to the point, and he seems to lack the pompous self-assurance that Badiou exudes — on paper, when writing metaphysics, at least. I’ll have to wait till the first part of next month to finish the book, but it is interesting.

  9. how clearly Meillassoux writes; it’s rather refreshing”

    like a modernist Diderot almost I thought.

  10. Chabert, why do you find the ‘real’ Speculative Realists so orful? Just curious.

  11. JCD, as you may have come across it in your reading of the first chapter, Meillassoux addresses the transcendental objection on pages 22-26.

  12. why do you find the ‘real’ Speculative Realists so orful? ”

    oh, that’s a long conversation. What do you like about them, if anything?

  13. “why do you find the ‘real’ Speculative Realists so orful? ”

    you can get the long (LONG) version in my blog archive and in hers. you’ll also get much more than you could ever have reason to want.

  14. ha, thanks. I’ll soon begin to read through your now dusty comments on these Speculative Realists.
    and what do I like about them? I suppose I enjoy the rather delusional claim they’ve made (or others have made for them) that they’re scoping out new and exclusive ground for philosophy. But more than that, their (ok, Brassier’s) militantly anti-anthropomorphic stance is invigorating, despite the problems it may pose for their proposed philosophical novelties.

  15. militantly anti-anthropomorphic stance is invigorating”

    but that’s just it - the proposition that the universe had a traumatic childhood and philosophy is its neurotic symptom is anthropomorphising to a giggleworthy extent. and so all the machismo about corruscating potentcy of reason is driven finally by a fanatical fidelity to the goofy film school version of the pseudoscience of psychoanalysis.

  16. Sorry, but is Brassier claiming ‘the universe had a traumatic childhood’ or that philosophy is ‘its neurotic symptom’? I’m not seeing that.

  17. if everything is dead already, this is not only because extinction disables those possibilities which were taken to be constitutive of life and existence, but also because the will to know is driven by the traumatic reality of extinction, and strives to become equal to the trauma of the in-itself whose trace it bears. In becoming equal to it, philosophy achieves a binding of extinction, through which the will to know is finally rendered commensurate with the in-itself. This binding coincides with the objectification of thinking understood as the adequation without correspondence between the objective reality of extinction and the subjective knowledge of the trauma to which it gives rise. It is this adequation that constitutes the truth of extinction. But to acknowledge this truth, the subject of philosophy must also recognize that he or she is already dead, and that philosophy is neither a medium of affirmation nor a source of justification, but rather the organon of extinction”

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